Richard Rende

How to talk to kids about 9-11

August 30, 2011  |  By David Orenstein |  401-863-1862
Kids will hear and see accounts of the terrorist attacks as the 10th anniversary of 9-11 approaches. Child psychologist Richard Rende says parents should let kids know they can come to them with questions. They should offer reassurance and protect kids from details, both by keeping answers simple and by monitoring the media kids consume.

Parents shouldn’t wait for their kids to come to them with questions about September 11, according to a Brown University expert. Instead, parents should let their kids know they can ask about the tragedy as they encounter media coverage of the 10th anniversary.

A parent’s main job, said Richard Rende, associate professor (research) of psychiatry and human behavior, is to help their kids feel reassured whether they are preschoolers or teens. The guiding principle for parents is to answer kids’ questions without exposing them to a drumbeat of disturbing details. That means answering questions directly and simply, without unnecessary detail, and monitoring their children’s media consumption in the days leading up to the anniversary.

“The most important rule is to take any question very seriously and just deal with that question,” said Rende, who is also affiliated with Butler Hospital and regularly blogs about research for Parents.com. “‘Less is more’ is a very good principle with kids. Let them direct you and don’t make assumptions about what they want to know. You can answer a question without going into detail,” he said. “You can try to be honest without being graphic.”

Parents should find a time in advance of the anniversary when they won’t quickly be interrupted to raise the subject. They can tell kids that they know this topic is going to come up on TV, online and at school. Parents can then let their kids know that they can ask whatever questions they have, whenever they have them.

Many kids will be concerned about their safety, both now and in the future, Rende said. Some may ask questions about death and about the suffering victims experienced. Parents can convey their feelings, but should also be mindful of their children’s potential fears.

“It’s okay if you are sad or if you are concerned, but you have to remember that you still want to show that you are in control of it so that you give your child a sense of confidence that they are still okay and you are there to take care of them,” Rende said.

It will likely be very difficult for parents to control what their kids see, but it’s worth trying. Rende, who has an 11-year-old daughter, said he plans to monitor her media exposure more than usual in the days leading up to the anniversary.

“Keep in mind that most of the sources in the media are delivering content that’s pitched at adults and a fair amount of this content will be upsetting to adults, so you can imagine how this will impact kids,” Rende said. “As a general rule you really want to be in control so that ... you can stop viewing if you feel like it’s getting too intense.”

Rende said much of the advice he has for parents is applicable for kids of any age or personality, but of course those factors do matter. Teens, for example, may remember the attacks and will have more sophisticated questions. Some kids are naturally more inquisitive, or sensitive, and parents should draw on their past experiences discussing difficult topics with their children.

“One of the big challenges of being a parent these days is figuring out how to discuss tragedies with their children because they are exposed to them via media on a repeated basis,” Rende said. “It’s something that you can’t control, typically, but it’s something you have to be prepared to discuss whenever it happens. The anniversary of 9/11 is somewhat unusual because you have some time to prepare.”

Advice for talking to kids about September 11

  • Don’t wait for your kids to approach you; let them know the lines of conversation are open.
  • Set aside a time to do this when you won’t be quickly interrupted.
  • Answer simply and directly. Less is more. Be honest without being graphic.
  • Listen to the kids and let their questions guide you. Don’t broach new subjects they haven’t asked about.
  • Be reassuring. Give them the confidence that they’re okay.
  • Monitor their exposure to media as best you can.
  • Be prepared for the conversation to continue after the anniversary.