91/11/2001: The Day That Changed America
Smart and Safe: Expert Advice on Helping Your Child

An Age-by-Age Guide

What's Going On

Your preschooler may sense your stress and sorrow, but may not be able to verbalize his feelings. Or he may not even remember what happened last year. The most important way to make him feel secure is to keep to your regular family routine.

How You Can Help

  • If your child brings it up, talk about the events in simple terms, expressing concern for people affected and acknowledging that even though bad things happen, there are lots of people who are working hard to keep our country, and him, safe.
  • Use pretend play, with dolls or action figures, to help him work out his feelings. It may be easier for him to act out what frightens him, but you should talk through his actions so that he learns positive ways to verbalize his thoughts.

Early Elementary

What's Going On

Your child is beginning to see the world from the perspective of others and can logically understand what happened on 9/11, though watching too much of the coverage can scare and confuse her. She is beginning to make sense of what happened and "why."

How You Can Help

  • Make sure she knows you're available to listen and feels comfortable expressing her thoughts, feelings, and fears.
  • Tell her what you, the community, and government are doing to protect her.
  • Discuss the positive effects of the tragedy — focusing on the sense of community, respect for police and fire fighters, and the resilience of the nation.
  • Talk about compromise, acceptance, and tolerance, suggesting ways she can reach out to people who are different than she is.
Upper Elementary

What's Going On

The anniversary may have the strongest effect on your child at this age. He may have fixed (and inaccurate) theories about what happened, experience anxiety, or suffer from nightmares. He can verbalize his feelings, without the capacity to cope with them, and though he comprehends what happened on 9/11, he may not be able to put it in perspective.

How You Can Help

  • Clarify the facts about the terrorist attacks and subsequent events.
  • Spend family time where you encourage him to express his emotions and explain that since the attacks, the government is much more alert to signs of danger and is taking extra steps to keep Americans safe.
  • Offer a tangible outlet for his feelings and worries. Encourage him to help others in need by making cards, participating in a memorial service, or donating some of his allowance to a charitable organization.
  • Discuss stereotypes and racism. Try to explain what motivated the attacks.

Middle School

What's Going On

Your pre-teen or teenager can understand different perspectives and is gaining global awareness. Because she's able to reason and think abstractly, she may challenge you with tough questions and struggle to understand her role in an uncertain future world.

How You Can Help

  • Do everything you would with a younger child, taking it a step further by engaging your middle-schooler in planning for her future as a grownup in a global community.
  • Encourage activities that involve helping others, such as volunteering to help kids or elderly people in your community. Promote cross-cultural thinking by challenging her to read the news of the day or connect with a pen pal from another country.
  • Charge her with battling intolerance in her school and community.
  • Use the opportunity to explain a shared sense of family responsibility and promote reflective thinking, giving her the power to participate in personal and family decisions.

Alice Honig on making your child feel secure: You are the most important person in your child's life, and she trusts you to keep her safe and secure. Even if she was frightened by the tragedies of 9/11, you can help her control those feelings by letting her know that "I am powerful and I can keep you safe!" Don't ignore or gloss over the sadness of the events; however, the contrast between a solemn school memorial and what might seem like your indifference will just confuse your child. Express sorrow and concern for the victims and their families, but stay calm and hopeful. Listen to your child's questions and answer them as truthfully as you can, constantly reinforcing your message of family togetherness and love. For example, if your child expresses that "bad men killed those people," answer her with a calm but emphatic "Yes! The terrorists were bad because they wanted to kill people who believed differently from them." You can go on to explain that you always want her to listen to and tolerate other people's ideas, as long as those people "are peaceful and do not try to hurt others." This discussion is also an important opportunity to explain why you always need to know where she is and how she can be reached. If she's having trouble eating, sleeping, or staying focused, make sure to help her talk out her feelings. And end any conversation with a big hug and a big "I love you."

Alice Sterling Honig, Ph.D is a professor emerita of child development at Syracuse University. She has done extensive research and written books and articles on infants and toddlers and preschooler social development. Dr. Honig is a licensed psychologist and a Fellow of the American Psychological Association and of the Society for Research in Child Development.

Adele Brodkin on finding the appropriate way to discuss 9/11 with your child: When you're deciding how to address the 9/11 anniversary, consider these 3 factors: your child's age, his physical and emotional closeness to the tragic events, and his individual needs and personality. Older children, ages 9 – 12, probably remember the event clearly and are completely aware of the anniversary, while kindergartners and first graders who live far away from New York and Washington, DC might not be aware of it at all. If your young child shows little interest or concern, resist the temptation to discuss 9/11 in too much depth; just acknowledge the anniversary briefly and indicate your willingness to answer any questions he might have. Middle-school students will benefit from detailed answers to their questions and open discussions, but if your child has a tendency to worry, you might want to tone down conversations that could make him anxious. Children who live in lower Manhattan will be reminded of 9/11 no matter what — at home, in the neighborhood, and at school — and those who lost someone dear to them will have the hardest time dealing with the anniversary. If this is the case in your family, don't push your child to discuss his feelings. Make it clear that it's okay to talk and okay not to talk, and provide lots of opportunities for private conversations.

Adele M. Brodkin, Ph.D, is a faculty member for the Institute for Training in Infant and Preschool Mental Health, Youth Consultation Service, and a member of the psychiatry department, section of psychology, at St. Barnabas Medical Center in northern New Jersey. Dr. Brodkin serves as Scholastic's senior child development consultant and is the author of a number of books and articles, including Fresh Approaches to Working With Problematic Behavior.

Bruce Perry on the lessons 9/11 can teach your child: First of all, review what happened on 9/11 together — make sure your child doesn't have a distorted view of the facts. Ask her when the events occurred, who was responsible, how many people died (some children think that "the firemen saved them all" while others estimate "about a million people died") and what the U.S. did to respond. Talk to her about the evolution of religious and ethnic stereotypes: explain that people who don't understand Islam tended to make generalizations about Muslim people, but that it's wiser not to generalize. Point out the support America received from the Arab world, and discuss how the emotions Americans felt after 9/11 shifted from fear, sadness, and anger to a deeper sense of community. This is a wonderful opportunity to talk about resilience and endurance -- as you talk with your child, focus on the strength that so many individuals showed in their capacity to share and support others, endure pain without bitterness, and begin to rebuild their lives. Finally, remind your child of our country's extraordinary capacity for restoration following this enormous challenge.

Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D., is an internationally-recognized authority on children in crisis. Dr. Perry is the Senior Fellow of the Child Trauma Academy in Houston, Texas, and the Medical Director for Children's Mental Health Programs for Alberta, Canada. He has been consulted on many high-profile incidents involving traumatized children, including the attacks of 9/11, Columbine, Colorado school shootings, the Oklahoma City bombing, and the Branch Davidian siege.

Polly Greenberg on talking realistically about 9/11:
Be straightforward and realistic about what happened on September 11th. Reassure your child that we're doing our very best to keep him safe, and that the probability of anything bad happening to him is very, very small. You can't promise that nothing like 9/11 can possibly happen again, so don't: your child trusts you to tell him the absolute truth but don't give details or dwell on this scary subject. Return quickly to happier topics.

Though it might be easier to discuss the situation in terms of good guys and bad guys with children under 5, avoid simplifying things to an older child. Explain that some people are very angry at Americans, even Americans they don't know, for a number of complicated reasons. Your explanation can be simple for a 5 year old and more complex for a 12 year old. Above all, give your child a sense of hope and make her feel that there's something she can do. If she learns how to solve problems with her friends and siblings, she'll be able to work with grownups from other countries when she grows up to help solve big problems like this one, just as many adults today are working hard to solve the problems that came from 9/11 and those that might have caused it.

Polly Greenberg, former editor of Young Children, the journal of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), is a child/parent/staff development specialist. Her primary concern is developing children whose character and contributions as adults will help make the world a little better.