Professor: How to Talk to Children about September 11

Like many people, Laura Wheat remembers where she was and what she was doing on September 11, 2001, when terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, DC and crashed a plane into a Pennsylvania field.

laura-wheatShe remembers being glued to TV news reports for days on end and feeling a wide range of emotions—anger, grief, fear and sadness.

Wheat is an assistant professor and coordinator of UT’s Grief Outreach Initiative.

Reflecting on her own experience and considering how the world has changed since in the past fifteen years, Wheat offers some thoughts about dealing with tragedy and helping children cope.

 Q: How can we help children understand or handle things like 9/11?

In times of disaster or national tragedy, we adults struggle to understand it ourselves, so it can be hard to even think about how to help our kids deal with it. Though it’s hard to do, we have to remember that kids need us to be sources of stability for them. They look to us to find out how to respond, and if we are falling apart, they will too.

Younger children need to know they are safe and who is taking care of them. Older children and teens will have lots of questions; it’s ok to answer them in language they can understand, but limit explicit details that might be overwhelming.

For the same reason, be present when they are watching news coverage or seeing something related to the event on social media, and talk with them about it. Find out what they’re thinking and feeling about what they’re seeing and help correct misunderstandings and soothe fears. There is, however, such a thing as too much exposure, which can be traumatizing; so in times of heavy coverage, limit screen time.

Q: What is the best way to talk to different age groups?

Families don’t sit around and watch the news as they did in the past, and the kinds of media kids and teens access will probably mention it very little, if at all. The attacks happened fifteen years ago, so only the oldest teens will even have been alive, though they won’t likely remember it. But they may hear about it in school as a history lesson, or through the grapevine if an adult around them mentions it.

With younger children, perhaps up to about age eight, it probably is a good idea to talk about it as a historical event. Tell them what happened in general terms and why the nation recognizes Patriot Day, answer their questions—again, with enough detail to give them information, but not so much as to be overwhelming or make them think they aren’t safe—and if you or they are participating in any kind of memorial ceremony or event, explain what’s happening and why.

With older children and teens, a little more detail is fine. But again, they will view this as a historical event; it probably won’t have the same salience for them as it does the adults around them. It might be wise to help them understand the reactions of adults around them using terms they can understand and not using extreme emotional language. If they do have a personal connection with the tragedy—for instance, a family member who was lost in New York City, Washington, DC, or Pennsylvania—and they experience an anniversary reaction of grief, validate their feelings, help them take perspective, and allow them room to express and process their grief.

Q: Have we become numb to this type of news?

I do not know that there is a scholarly research-based answer to that question. I do wonder what impact the twenty-four-hour news cycle has on our mental health. I think the answer is very complex.

On one hand, it can literally be traumatizing to see the same images repeated constantly in the media, even if you weren’t there and have no connection to anyone who was. That is part of the reason 9/11 is burned into my brain and why I have a very visceral emotional response to seeing those images even fifteen years later. I was in Charlotte, North Carolina, hundreds of miles away on 9/11, and in the short term my responses were certainly appropriate reactions to the shock and fear of having been attacked. But the long-term impact on me was caused not by the event or its implications but by the hours and hours I spent watching the news coverage afterward.

On the other hand, however, both the incidents and the availability of coverage of national tragedies have greatly increased since 2001. School shootings happen nearly every day now in this country. We have been involved in wartime activities continuously. And reports of all of those things as well as more minor incidents are much more constant than they were in 2001 because of the social media boom.

It takes more to get people’s attention and hold it now, so reports become more extreme and dramatic. If you want to say something people will read and repeat in 140 characters or less, it has to be memorable, so in that sense we may have become desensitized because we are just inundated.

With reports becoming shorter and more extreme, will we see a rise in complex trauma as a result of repetitious exposure to crisis events in the media? This would be a new frontier for those of us in the mental health fields.

The uptick in consumption of news via social media does not come with a corresponding uptick in availability or consumption of mental health services, so I worry about our collective state of mind as a country.

 

CONTACT:

Tyra Haag (865-974-5460, tyra.haag@tennessee.edu)