What do we tell our children who were born into a post 9/11 world? How do we explain the evil that was perpetrated upon American soil that day? At what age are they old enough to comprehend the tragedy? How do we help them make sense of it?
The short answer is that we can’t make sense of it ourselves so how can we do so for them? We may be able to describe the climate of hatred or the mechanics of aiming an airplane filled with fuel into a building, but no one can comprehend the magnitude of the fear, the sorrow and the anger that will haunt us forever.
But at some point in our children’s young lives we need to tell them of the events that occurred that day. The age at which we tell them depends on the temperament of the child and his or her ability to pull back; view the world objectively, and not become overwhelmed with emotion. Children of school age are going to begin to hear about it anyway from teachers, news media and other children. So as with any difficult topic—sexuality, finance and the like—we tell them in little bits. We take our cues from them to see how they are reacting. We answer their questions and shut up when it seems they have heard enough for one day.
But as we do so it is important to remember that children (and adults) will be frightened at the unbelievable story being told. It is tough to comprehend that we were attacked on American soil in an unpredictable way. No one would have believed that jets filled with fuel would crash into a building or that 3000 people would die.
So they will do what all of us do with a story as preposterous as 9/11. They will transfer it to a part of their brain where fantasy resides. Young children may turn it into a scene filled with monsters while older children may populate it with zombies and the walking dead (not unlike some of the footage that we saw.) They will cope by giving it a tinge of unreality. They will know it happened but a part of their minds will transform it into a fiction even more horrible but somehow under their control.
Still the question underlying their fears may emerge in some form or other: Can you—my parents—keep me safe? If tragedy happens will you be with me? Can we go through it together? The knowledge that you are there and that you will keep them AS SAFE AS YOU CAN is the best and perhaps the only reassurance that we can give them.
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Ellen Toronto is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Spring, Texas and has been practicing since 1980. In 2017, she was elected a Fellow in Psychoanalysis by the American Psychological Association. In 2016, Dr. Toronto's practice was recognized as one of the top Ann Arbor Psychology practices. She received her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Michigan. Dr. Toronto is married to Robert Toronto, Ph.D., and together they have four sons and eleven grandchildren.