Helping Children Live Their Lives in a Post 9/11 World

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As we near the tenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks, I find myself, like so many others, reflecting on where I was at the time of the attacks and vividly recalling how feelings ranging from disbelief and overwhelming sadness to anger, fear and unity all but overwhelmed our country in the subsequent days, weeks, and months that followed.

In the hours immediately following the attacks, I have a particularly clear memory of exactly what I was thinking and feeling, if for no other reason than I hurriedly but carefully wrote down my thoughts and any words of parental support I could come up with in an article that was distributed around the country entitled Helping Your Children Cope with the News of Reported Terrorist Attacks. In the years since, I have repeatedly been asked about (and struck by) what I wrote that morning, not only because I too was feeling an overwhelming sense of loss, but because the steps I outlined for parents to take in order to comfort their children and help them make some sense of the tragedy apply as much today as they did back then.

At the time, I wrote that no matter how upset we are by the grim reality that our country is not as safe as we would like to believe it to be, we have to offer our children some semblance of security in their world. The fact of the matter is that I believe this is what we, as parents, should always strive to do. To that end, I wanted to share with you what I wrote so you can continue to offer your children a sense of security each and every day.

  • Immediate reassurance. In the event of any tragedy, start by emphasizing your child’s personal safety and the safety of loved ones. Let your child see, hear, and tangibly feel a sense of security that comes from knowing that he/she is safely surrounded by adults who care about him/her. At the time I wrote this, I recommended letting children talk to relatives on the phone or reach out by email. Ten years later and I firmly believe it shouldn’t take a national or even a personal family tragedy for us to remember how important our family and loved ones are to us and reach out, whether by phone, email, text, Skype, Facebook, or the good old fashioned way…in person.
  • A sense of structure. Even before the events of September 11th,  I was one of a vast majority of pediatricians, including Dr. Benjamin Spock himself, who expressed concern about the inappropriate and potentially harmful violent images children were being exposed to – from prime time television to Saturday morning cartoons and the evening news. Perhaps one of the most vivid memories I have of the morning of September 11th, 2001 is that of watching the televised coverage of people in the World Trade Center Towers jumping to their deaths. While these horrifying images may well have been permanently emblazoned in my mind had I only witness them once, the fact that they, along with all of the equally tragic and impossible-to-comprehend events of the day were repeated over and over and over again in the twenty-four-hour a day newscasts and on the internet made it impossible for me, as an adult, to escape. I certainly understood (and still recognize) the feeling of needing to leave the television set on and watch events unfold. But my cautionary advice to parents was and is that children (and all people, for that matter) are more able to handle shocking news when it is not immediate in time and when it is presented in print, rather than on television. Now think about where we are today. The next couple of days are sure to be filled with a lot of re-living of the events of that day ten years ago. And while I agree that we should never forget, and that we should honor those whose lives were lost, it’s as important today as it was ten years ago to protect our children from having to repeatedly witness and re-live the horrors of the day. Let me also just say that I believe that the world would be a better place if we all made a concerted effort to limit the amount of violence, so often disguised as entertainment, that our children are exposed to each of the other 364 days of the year as well.
  • Showing emotions and patience. Regardless of the circumstances and even if they are too young to fully understand, from a very early age children are acutely aware of the emotional state of their parents and loved ones. My advice to parents now is the same as it was then: It’s fine to let children know that you are upset and sad, but make sure to make it clear that you’re not upset with them. Also, as with any tragedy, loss, or change in routing, don’t be surprised if children show signs of distress. Whether in the form of fussiness, fear, nightmares, or tantrums, all of these reactions are normal and are best handled with patience.
  • Mutual support. When our country was telling from the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, it only made sense to focus on our national unity and resolve and encourage parents to seek the support and solace they needed in order to be able to be calm and confident with their children. The fact of the matter is that raising our children to be happy, healthy, and safe and with a sense of belonging to a bigger community is what we should all be striving for. While raising a child may not technically require a village, having a community of support sure can help. It is my sincere hope that we all look for ways to teach tolerance, come together, and support each other.

And that leads me to one of the most important things we need to remember and teach our children as we reflect on the past ten years, and that’s the importance of teaching respect for differences and tolerance. I was recently reminded of the fact that in the period following 9/11, there was a disturbing backlash agains Muslims that sadly does not seem to have fully subsided. Despite the fact that the religion of Islam preaches peace, justice, and tolerance, and those who follow the religion of Islam are estimated to make up more than one-fifth of the world’s population, there are still many Americans who continue to direct their post-9/11 anger and distrust towards all Muslims. Even here in Omaha, a close friend recently told me that her own daughter was no longer allowed to be in contact with another family’s son, simply because her father was an “Arab Muslim.” In response to this sadly racist statement, I suggest that in remembering what were the most tragic attacks to ever occur on American soil, we also remind ourselves and our children that these attacks were carried out by extremists and not representatives of any certain color, religion or race.

Originally posted on Omaha World Herald’s Live Well Nebraska