8 Tips for Speaking to Children About 9/11

Global Game Changers Children’s Education Initiative, Inc. (GGC) encourages a delicate approach when teaching younger children about the events of September 11, 2001. The events of that day may feel recent to adults, most of whom lived through the events of that morning and can recall where they were when news of the terrorist attacks broke, yet something that took place 21 years ago feels like another era to children.

The events of 9/11 hold a powerful, useful lesson for younger children: understanding that we can overcome tragic events if we work together. GGC shares these eight tips for talking to younger children about 9/11. 

1. Check your vocabulary

Young kids don’t have the nuance or ability to understand some of the bigger terms you might associate with 9/11: “radical Islam,” “weapons of mass destruction,” “terrorism,” etc. Consider using terms that children can understand, such as “problem,” “solution,” “hurt,” “afraid,” “helper.” For kids younger than 10, you might say, “In New York and Washington, D.C. some bad people flew planes into buildings. Many people were hurt and many people were afraid. In fact, that’s what the bad guys wanted.”

2. Be knowledgeable

Even if you have clear and vivid memories of 9/11, brush up on your facts. Kids will ask a variety of questions, so you will want to be prepared. In case they come up with a question you don’t know the answer to, don’t make up an answer. You can either say “I’ll find out and let you know,” or you can search for the answer together.

3. Have a purpose in mind

Make sure you know the ultimate lesson you’re trying to convey from your conversation. We recommend three goals: 1) There was an event called 9/11 that impacted the entire country. 2) There were many heroes as a result of that day. 3) Although we were faced with tragedy, we emerged triumphant.

4. Know your audience

Different children have different capacities for understanding events in the news. Broadly speaking, children younger than 10 tend to internalize events and are less able to separate what happened to other people from what happened to themselves. By contrast, children older than 10 are less likely to internalize something like 9/11, and thus less likely to be scared for their own safety.

5. Don’t hesitate to use tools

Global Game Changers’ 911lesson.org website is focused on helping kids in kindergarten through fifth grade understand and process 9/11 with a video, virtual galleries, interactive activities, and service projects. You can also check out some amazing children’s books written about 9/11.

6. Read the room

Learning about 9/11 can bring up difficult feelings of loss and fear for some children. Be alert to those signs in your own children, and especially in a larger setting like a classroom, where you may be less aware of each child’s past experiences. Allow for some quiet space to think and reflect.

7. Remember the positive

Although 9/11 was a tragic event with widespread consequences, help kids focus on the positive. Integrating heroic stories of familiar figures – firefighters, EMTs, and police officers – will help kids feel less scared. Older kids may connect to the stories of everyday people who stepped up on that day and in the days afterwards to help.

8. Explore 9/11’s remnants today

Remind kids that we have not had an attack like 9/11 since that day 21 years ago. If your children are familiar with air travel, you can tell them how airport security has changed to keep us safe. Numerous cities across the United States have also created their own 9/11 memorials, so you might plan a visit to one close to your home.

Many lives were lost on 9/11, so it is important to be sensitive when sharing anything with a younger child about the events. It can provide a rich history lesson when taught properly.