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How to talk to your kids about 9/11

The John J. Harvey was a fireboat that

The John J. Harvey was a fireboat that was pressed into service on Sept. 11, 2001. There is a children's book about the adventures of the fireboat and it will also be at the Oyster Festival in Oyster Bay on Oct 15-16, 2011. Credit: Handout

With the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks just around the corner, many parents are thinking about ways to explain the horrific events to their children. Although many were too young to remember or understand the circumstances of the attacks, others weren't even born when they occurred. But with exposure to the Internet, television, radio and adult conversations, children will likely need help managing anxiety associated with the terror attacks. Whether they remember or not, most kids are sure to have questions and concerns. As a parent, it's important to be prepared, so we went to the experts for tips to help you help your children understand 9/11.

1. Be selective of media coverage. Children should be informed in advance that they're going to be seeing and hearing a lot about the events of 9/11, on television and in newspapers and magazines. Try and limit what they watch at home and tell your child that this event will be recognized the first week of school every year.

2. Have a big discussion during the day. You want your children to have a chance to think about what they've heard so that they can ask questions later, said Laurie Zelinger, a licensed psychologist in Cedarhurst. Try not to talk about these events before bedtime. "Discussions before bed can trigger anxiety and don?t allow you enough time to answer their questions and bring them back to the state of calm they'll need to go to sleep," she said.

3. Leave yourself time to answer their questions. "The door has to be open for their questions and it may take several different sessions before all of their questions come out," Zelinger said. "This type of event you need to be available to address their questions or concerns at the moment they occur and at the level they understand. Reassure them that adults in their world are doing their best to keep them safe." You can even prompt the conversation by asking, "What do you know about 9/11?"

4. Keep your emotions in check. Plan your responses in the context of what you know about your child, said Laurie Zelinger's husband, Fred Zelinger, who is also a licensed psychologist in Cedarhurst. "Your own emotional state will influence what your children hear, and their feelings may mirror yours," he said. "Think about how 9/11 makes you feel as an adult and use that information to craft your response to their questions."

5. Think about the message you want to convey. Try to understand what your goal is as you speak to your child. Do you want them to understand the loss and sadness, to understand the need for rules and procedures about how to be safe, or to understand the ability to recover from tragedy and to become stronger? "It's crucial to think about the message before you give it, since uncertainty and confusion in the delivery can only increase a child's anxiety," Laurie Zelinger said.

6. Let your child express his/her feelings. "Give your children time to figure out what they need from you," Laurie Zelinger said. Watch for clues as to changes in their behavior. "Remind them of the routines you as a family engage in to keep them safe. If your child appears anxious, try to keep all of your daily routines as predictable as possible, as predictability brings comfort to young children," she said.

7. Reassure them that they are safe. Let your children know their safety is your utmost concern and that as their parents, you are doing everything you can to keep them safe and happy. After a serious discussion, give your child a chance to return to their normal routine, so that they feel comforted, Fred Zelinger said. Let them play with their toys, read a book to them, or let them watch their favorite DVD.

Tips for tweens and teens

Many tweens and teens bottle up their emotions and may be reluctant to approach you directly and ask you questions about 9/11. "Adolescents may listen better if you say you are available to talk to them, but don't tell them they 'have' to talk with you and don't assume they will," said Phyllis S. Ohr, director of the child and parent psychological services clinic at Hofstra University's Saltzman Community Services Center. If your adolescent does come talk to you, listen carefully and normalize their feelings and thoughts. Many young adults will experience a variety of intense emotions and thoughts (angry, sad, scared), and that's completely normal, Ohr said. "Try not to put words in their mouths," she said. "Reflect on what they are feeling and be warm and supportive, not judgmental." You can also ask them what they remember about the day and then answer their questions directly.

At an extreme, if you notice your tween or teen is very anxious and especially if it interferes with normal activities such as socializing, schoolwork and daily routines, then make sure they do talk to a professional. "Adolescents may not necessarily use words to express how distressed they are, so parents need to monitor behavioral signs of distress," Ohr said.

Read a book together

Lastly, if you have a hard time talking about 9/11 with your kids, you can always read a book together. Check out some books that are written specifically for children about 9/11. 

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