By: Steve Palmer
When our kids are scared of monsters under the bed, we usually feel pretty sure about how to help them. When the family dog dies, it’s a little more complicated, but again, we can usually swing it. As our kids’ experience of life increases, however, the situations we need to help them sort out and try to understand become more challenging. The drama of relationships or complex social issues like crime or poverty can be emotionally-charged, and pointing out solutions may not be so easy.
Now that September 11th is upon us once again, some parents wonder about the best way to talk with their kids about a complicated and emotionally powerful event such as this.
Unlike the immediate aftermath of a tragedy, where concerns about safety are often the primary focus, anniversaries of such events can lead us into those more complicated questions about causes, effects, or the ongoing social, economic, or political implications of such events. Keeping a few basic ideas in mind may help us navigate these conversations about issues that are pretty challenging, even for us adults.
I like to think in terms of inner work and outer work. Inner work is the task of monitoring and managing our emotions and finding ways to “make sense” of what has happened. Outer work points to actions we can take that help us deal with difficulties or contribute to solutions.
1. Be a good listener. Don’t be afraid to start conversations about the September 11th anniversary. Kids will be hearing about it anyway. Be sure to be open to and accept all their emotions. They may have a variety of feelings ranging from anger to fear, and their feelings may not match your own. Just listening and sharing your own thoughts can show support and help them sort out their own.
2. Keep it age appropriate. In my home, we have kids across a wide age span—from 6 to 16—and we have to tailor conversations to match the kids’ developmental stages. The younger ones are concrete thinkers, and they need the reassurance that they are safe. The older kids and teens are insistent upon their own opinion and can handle more ambiguity. Acknowledge complexity, and help them think it through. Let this be an opportunity to get to know your kids’ questions and opinions. There is no denying that September 11, 2001 changed the world as we knew it in many ways. Acknowledging that we are still trying to make sense of it all is a good place to start.
1. Find a way to mark the anniversary. Many civic or church organizations will hold memorials. National events will be televised. Encourage kids to be a part of some of this so they can find a way to honor those who have most directly been affected. It can give them a way to put words to their own feelings, as well.
2. Focus on what they (and you) can do now, here, today. It is important that we feel a sense of control over at least part of our world. Big conversations are helpful, but focusing on the here-and-now can help us avoid feeling overwhelmed or helpless. Volunteer, join an organization that works towards your political or social beliefs, reach out to neighbors or friends – find some way to contribute to increasing peace and security in the world.
3. Build resilience. Research on the after-effects of trauma is increasingly suggesting that we can teach and learn skills that increase our resilience. In fact, we can even become stronger as individuals in the face of difficulty. This “bounce-back ability” is being called post-traumatic growth. Focusing on optimism and gratefulness, building competence in achieving goals, and searching out personal, spiritual meaning are important projects in this regard.
Ready to take the next step? Consider these resources:
- For next steps and specific ideas for building resilience consult the American Psychological Association website.
- The National Association of School Psychologists – Check this website out for some great resources for parents, youth and school personnel relating specifically to the 9/11 anniversary.
- Image via: mrsdkrebs on Flick’r.