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Talking to children in post-Sept. 11 world
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When the events of Sept. 11, 2001 occurred, our entire nation felt the shockwaves. Almost anyone can recite exactly where they were when American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the World Trade Center’s North Tower. Me? I was at work. My office phone began ringing early.
As director of Crisis Services at Centerstone, a provider of mental illness and addiction treatment, I get a variety of calls to help respond to traumatic events such as bank robberies, plane crashes, violence in the workplace, and larger events like natural disasters. This was, of course, quite different.
In a blur of activity, emails and countless other phone calls, we mobilized Centerstone Crisis Services staff to partner with community volunteers and other agencies to activate disaster response that included an emergency hotline and responding to the American Red Cross, where I spent my entire day. That evening, I came home and turned on the TV where the media coverage played over and over. Images of a nation in panic flashed across the screen. My daughter, who was just 2 years old at the time, then did something she’d never done before. She toddled across the room and turned the TV off. I turned it back on, and she turned it off again.
I don’t think she was old enough to know what was going on, but she was perceptive enough to know something was very wrong.
Children are unique in the way they perceive things. They experience powerful emotions and interpret life in a way that is bigger than they are.
Now my daughter is in middle school and like so many of our children, she has always lived in a post-Sept. 11 world. It is their Pearl Harbor – an event they read about in history books. So as we approach the 10th anniversary of this tragedy, what is the message for our children?
For adolescents in middle and high school, it’s a good time for educators and parents to talk about heroics and how people rally together during times of crisis. I tell my daughter stories of the brave acts that occurred on that tragic day and in the weeks and months that followed. I also remind her about the longer term, emotional and mental support people need after these kinds of events and remind her it’s OK to ask for help, and it’s admirable to give it.
For younger children, this can be an opportunity to talk about safety. It may not be another terrorist attack, but we will inevitably experience disasters like tornados, floods, hurricanes and fires. Where should we go in the event of a tornado? What do we do in case of a flood? These are important, honest conversations to have with your children – even young ones. Being prepared can ease their anxiety, and yours, in the event of a disaster.
On this significant anniversary of Sept. 11, talk to your children. Discuss what they see on TV and hear on the news. Allow them to express their feelings. Encourage and reassure them in a positive yet realistic way. Such anniversaries can cause additional stress and anxiety in all of us, so look for changes in mood, sleeping or eating patterns, which can indicate a more serious issue.
If you suspect you or your family needs help coping with stress or anxiety, contact a mental health professional. Centerstone staff members are available anytime at 800-291-4357 to talk with parents and families and help them connect to resources they might need.
Becky Stoll is director of Centerstone’s Crisis Services and Crisis Management Strategies. She can be reached at