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Family Matters: Talking with Kids About 9/11

Like many other parents I am figuring out how best to talk with my kids about 9/11. I know some of what we share with our children depends on their age, personality and whether or not they were directly or indirectly impacted by the events surrounding that day.

My boys turn ten this year, only a few days after the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Now that they are old enough to read, question and understand more about the world around them, I want to be prepared for their questions while still being mindful of what I share, the images they see and the media they are exposed to.

Local expert Dr. Susan Erstling, PhD

To help understand how to best handle 9/11 and other traumatic events, I spoke to Dr. Susan Erstling, PhD, a senior vice president at Family Service of Rhode Island, where they have a Children’s Treatment and Recovery Center for children exposed to violence, abuse and disasters. Clinicians have been trained in evidence based practices for children who are experiencing difficulties. Since not all children exposed to a traumatic event or disaster need treatment, Dr. Erstling suggested some things parents can do to reduce the impact, and manage distress. She confirmed that children of different ages have different needs and issues, so parents need to put themselves in the shoes of their children and use them as barometers of how to talk with them.

Family Service of Rhode Island suggests the following to help children deal with 9-11:

1. Encourage children to tell you how they are feeling about the event.
2. Ask them what they have seen or experienced of 9/11.
3. Assure your children that they will be taken care of by their families, and other adults.
4. Recognize that they may experience distress as sleep problems, anxiety, physical complaints, even anger. This is normal.
5. Limit exposure to media, TV, or for young children, adult conversations about the traumatic event.
6. Reassure them that our government is doing everything it can to keep them safe.
7. Don’t force them to participate in memorial events or other remembrances that you think might be good for them. Let them acknowledge it in their own way.
8. Be honest with them, when they ask questions.

The advice I received on how to talk with kids about 9/11 is a bit similar to how we should talk to kids about other sensitive subjects or traumatic events such as death of a pet or how babies are made.

Create space for quiet moments

It’s important for parents to create space for quiet moments–dinnertime, storytime, or tucking in at bedtime–into our daily routine where kids feel comfortable asking questions. We should answer the questions our kids ask and not what we think they are asking. Sometimes kids just want a literal answer even though we think they want an explanation.

At age six, my boys only wanted “yes” or “no” answers. Now almost 10, they have more questions about who did the attacks, why they did it and how do we stop it from happening again. These answers are a bit more complicated but at this age they are able to understand more about the events. We limit media exposure in our house on a dally basis and the events of 9/11 are no exception.

I also take cues from my kids. If they seem sad or uncomfortable by the answers, I try to share something hopeful, ways we can help, stories about the heroic things people have done, and I am always available for hugs.

Here’s a list of esources, community projects and books to share with your children:


Resources on how to make change locally and nationally:

  • Kidoinfo Community Minded-Kids field guide (PDF): Help kids care about the world around them by teaching them about their community. Help them create socially-minded family action plan.
  • Action America: Mission: To unite and activate Americans everywhere to turn the events of 9/11 into positive action.
  • New York Says Thank You: Started in 2003 at the suggestion of a 5-year-old boy, this foundation helps to transform the 9/11 Anniversary into a positive, hands-on platform for national volunteer service.

Books to read and talk about:

The Day Our World Changed: Children’s Art of 9/11 by Andrea Henderson Fahnestock
All of America’s children were affected by the events of September 11, 2001. The New York University Child Study Center and the Museum of the City of New York have collaborated on this unusual book, which presents children’s artwork created in response to 9/11. Seventy-five works by children 5-18 years old, all from the New York area, were selected for the book.
Reading level: All ages

Do Not Be Sad – A Chronicle Of Healing by Engine 24 Ladder 5
Children’s letters and artwork sent from across America to Engine 24 Ladder 5 FDNY after 9/11. A 64-page tribute with colorful drawings and letters from children to Manhattan firefighters. Essays and reflection by leaders from both New York and the nation. Proceeds go to the youngest victims of September 11 through The Children’s Aid Society. Written by children, it reflects all the love, affirmation and hope through their eyes. This particular firehouse was one of the first on the scene and lost 11 of its members on 9/11.
Reading level: Ages 4-8

Fireboat: The Heroic Adventures of the John J. Harvey by Maira Kalman
This story is the tale of the history of a fireboat. Is begins in the year 1931 when the boat, John J. Harvey is launched to fight fires on New York piers. The same year the Empire State Building is constructed and Babe Ruth hits his 611th home run. We see the boat in its prime and then decline and eventual disrepair and retirement. Thanks to a group of friends the boat is repaired and called upon to fight its worst blaze ever. Book offers an interesting bit of history, celebrates the underdog, and honors the fire-fighting profession.
Reading level: Ages 4-8

September Roses by Jeanette Winter
This book retells the story of two sisters from South Africa who are in town for a flower show and get stranded in New York City in the aftermath of September 11 with thousands of roses. They take their flowers to Union Square and arrange them in the shape of the fallen towers. Beautifully illustrated in pen-and-ink drawings contrast colorful pages with the black and white providing a powerful way to capture the intensity of emotion that was felt that day and the healing human connections that soon followed.
Reading level: Ages 4-8

I Was Born On 9/11 by Cindy L. Rodriguez and illustrated by Joyce L. Elliott
Who would have dreamed that the exact same day on which they were born would be the same day that one of the most world-changing, history-making events ever occurred? In poetic rhyme and brilliant colors, the narrator in this book, I Was Born on 9/11, shares what happened on September 11, 2001. The reader sees the events in New York, how America pulled together, how our people realized the value of their country, and how we as a nation can have hope for a safer tomorrow.
Reading level: Ages 4-8

September 12th: We Knew Everything Would Be All Right written and illustrated by First Grade Students of H. Byron Masterson Elementary in Kennett Missouri
On September 11th horrific events occurred, yet through the simple text and vibrant art of first graders, we are reminded that the world continued the next day. On each page, children experience the comforts of ordinary routines, such as their teacher reading books to them, having homework and recess, and knowing that 2 + 2 still equals 4. This is a poignant message of hope that reassures us all that even after bad things happen, tomorrow always brings a new day.
Reading level: Ages 4-8

September 11 (We the People: Modern America series) by Mary Englar
On a bright sunny morning on September 11, 2001, hijackers took control of four U.S. commercial airplanes. The terrorists crashed two planes into two World Trade Center Towers in New York City. Forty minutes later, hijackers crashed another plane into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. Passengers on a fourth hijacked plane resisted, and the plane crashed in an empty Pennsylvania field. The tragic events of September 11 killed nearly 3,000 people, scarred Americans, and changed the world forever.
Reading level: Ages 9-12

The Little Chapel that Stood by A. B. Curtiss
This beautifully illustrated book tells of the historic chapel less than 100 yards from the Twin Towers that miraculously survived on 9/11. The story of terror overcome by courage and bravery teaches us no one is too small to make a difference.
Reading level: Ages 9-12

September 11, 2001 by Andrew Santella
This book is more of a reference book about events surrounding 9/11. It lists basic facts of the three attack sites, the investigation, the president’s role and whereabouts that day (including excerpts from his speech to the nation), the war on Afghanistan, anthrax, and the six-month anniversary memorials. Most of the large, color photographs are of the sites before the destruction or relevant people or related subjects. Sidebars present information about topics such as the Pentagon, Air Force One, and the history of terrorism.
Reading level: Ages 9-12

Read more on GoLocalProv. Every week I share tips on how families can make the most of their family time – including helpful hints that make parenting easier and connecting you to great local happenings.

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  • thanks for your kind words, erin the feeling is mutual.

    one of the amazing things that happened while working on this piece was the discussion i did have with my sons about the fact that i was writing this article and we could talk about why i was writing this and what i chose to include or not include. my one son took an interest in the books i was selecting and even brought his scholastic book order form home from school because there was a book for sale and he thought i may interested in it for my article. and once i was done writing this piece, my son helped edit it.

    the funny thing about parenting is how one thing leads to another. editing the article led him to ask why is “where do babies come from?” a sensitive issue? we have not yet talked the birds and the bees but i feel this will happening soon as well. yikes.