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April 13, 2024

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How to Talk With Your Kids About September 11

An age-by-age guide for discussing one of the most difficult American tragedies on its 20th anniversary.

Talking to kids about 9/11 is important while the topic is in the air. With the 20th Anniversary upon us, be prepared for kids of all ages.



Find out what they know. Start with, 'Have you heard of 9/11?' According to PBS, you might start a conversation about 9/11 by asking what your child knows and what other kids or older siblings are saying about the events that happened on Sept. 11. You may be surprised to learn whay you little one has picked up from conversations at home and on TV. It's always a good idea to begin a conversation with your child by seeing what he already knows, which may be more than you think.

Clear up any misconceptions. While we hope most young kids don't know about the attacks on 9/11, if you're surprised by what they've picked up, it's OK to clear up misperceptions and to assure them they are safe. If your child has any worries, don't belittle them, but talk them through it. Little ones of 3 and 4 don't need big explanations or adult concepts. Acknowledge, simple explanation, reassurances and move on. 

Keep it simple and succinct. Simply share the basics: "September 11 was a day when airplanes crashed into two very tall  buildings in New York City called the Twin Towers," is enough. And then wait to answer any questions that may bubble up for your child. They don't need to see images or video or hear horrible details. Don't tell them how many people died, or that people jumped out of windows — that's too much for them to handle, according to psychologists. To read more about talking to children of all ages about terrorism, visit the 9/11 Memorial & Museum online here.

Make them feel safe. Whatever you say, end with the message that they don't need to worry—even if, as an adult, you may suspect that's not necessarily true. Talk about the brave people that helped others on that day, firemen, policemen and ordinary people, who went to help and assure them that many, many good people are working hard to make sure that nothing like that ever happens again.


Elementary Schoolers

Again, find out what they know and correct any misperceptions. School-age children have undoubtedly heard about 9/11 from their friends, in the classroom and on TV. But it's still important to find out exactly what they know before you start talking. "Be a good listener," Fred Rogers always used to say, and he once said, "Older children are probably aware that something serious is happening in the world. If parents don't bring up the subject to them, they may be left at the mercy of their misinterpretations. Parents may want to ask their children to tell them what they have heard." 

Keep it concrete. Now that your child is older, you can share more information, but they're still too young to understand the big picture. Avoid getting into politics. Elementary-school kids don't have abstract thinking. They can't process different points of view, so stick with the facts. Relate it to their world."
Ask them what they think. They're old enough to start sharing their feelings about what happened. If your child says it makes them feel sad or scared, you can admit that you feel the same way, too, but continue to emphasize that everyone's working hard to keep us safe in our country and on airplanes. Give them coping skills through reassuring conversation.


Find out what your child knows and provide reassurances.



Books for Children About 9/11 from Common Sense Media

What Happened on September 11
A documentary designed in response to children's questions following the events of 9/11. Screen the content first and decide if it's appropriate for your children to see.

Rebuilding Hope: The Children of 9/11
Streaming now on discovery+. This is the trailer.


Middle and High Schoolers

Start a conversation. At this point, you no longer need to tiptoe around the facts. Kids are developing their own thoughts and opinions about what happened. Hear your kids out, don't interrupt them and validate their thoughts. They have rights to their own opinions, so be careful not to impose your own.

Limit exposure to graphic images and videos. People of all ages are disturbed by video of the Twin Towers falling. If you want your child to have more context, consider watching Rebuilding Hope: The Children of 9/11, streaming on discovery+ now. This documentary is about young adults who were children when their parents perished on 9/11. They discuss the event and what happened to them personally afterward in a clear-eyed way. In addition, a study released in 2019 out of the University of Wisconsin – Madison, revealed that the most popular method of teaching about 9/11 for middle- and high-school students was by showing a documentary or video.

Keep your kid's temperament in mind. Everyone handles difficult information differently. If your child is deeply sensitive, respect that and don't force her into seeing images or learning more that may disturb her. But even if your teenager gets upset remember, kids are remarkably resilient. 

Model positive behavior. Don't immerse yourself in 24-hour news coverage of the anniversary — going over the top on anything is not healthy for your family. Acknowledge, be aware and present for your kids, but don't indulge in the sadness.

About the Author

Susan Swindell Day

Susan Day is the editor in chief for this award-winning publication and all-things Nashville Parent digital creative. She's also an Equity actress, screenwriter and a mom of four amazing kids.