Cincinnati Family Magazine

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April 18, 2024

Speaking the Unspeakable

How to talk to children about what even we don’t understand

“Mom! the teacher says airplanes knocked down some buildings in New York City today!” my first grader announced as he ran out of school the afternoon of Sept. 11. My mind freshly gorged with visions of fiery explosions, crumbling skyscrapers and people fleeing in terror, I numbly agreed, unsure what more to say.

Adults everywhere, shaken to the core by the recent tragedies, share my dilemma. Their children have witnessed the horrors firsthand or have been exposed to nightmarish TV footage. Some little ones have waited for loved ones who will never return home. Others have wondered why their parents keep crying. Sadly, the destruction and heartbreak can never be explained away. Grown-ups can, however, help ease the minds of frightened children by listening to their concerns, answering their questions and reassuring them that they are loved and safe.

As parents try to help children make sense of the madness, it’s important to consider youngsters’ ages and developmental stages.

What to say to kids under age 7

Children younger than 7 don’t differentiate very well between fantasy and reality; they can very easily become anxious, fearful and upset. Because of that, parents’ main goal should be to make them feel secure. One way to accomplish that is to explain that this sort of incident hasn’t happened in a long time, and probably won’t happen again for a very long time. “Even if something like this could happen again, it is the priority to keep young children feeling that the world is a safe, sacred, special place.

They need to feel that the adults in their lives can take care of them and can handle all their fears and insecurities,” counsels child psychologist Vincent Morello, Ph.D. When discussing the situation with this age group, it’s best to stick to generalities. “With young kids, you have to be careful what you share,” warns Tricia Tersigni, a guidance counselor for Jefferson County Schools in Arvada, Colorado, who counseled Columbine High School students after the 1999 massacre. “You don’t want to tell them more information than they truly need to know.” Talk of terrorists is beyond young children’s realm of understanding and could frighten them unnecessarily.

Parents must also be sure to do a lot of clarifying. “Because things make sense to us as adults, we forget that kids may interpret them a different way,” says Tersigni. To ensure children are getting an age-appropriate, accurate view of the situation, ask them questions like, “What do you think happened there?” she suggests.

To reestablish a further sense of security, maintain a normal schedule, advises Rex Forehand, a clinical child psychologist and director of the Institute of Behavioral Research at the University of Georgia. Activities like going to school and reading a favorite bedtime story lend a calming order to a child’s existence. Make sure, as well, to hug and touch your children often to help them feel loved and safe.

Talking to kids ages 7 to 12

From second grade through the early middle school years, children are able to reason at a simplistic level. They see things as good or bad, right or wrong. Like their younger peers, these kids need to be assured they are safe from harm and that acts of extreme violence are a rarity in our country. “Parents need to tell children that America is the strongest country in the world and that we are going to respond to this violence in a way that will make sure something like this will not happen again for a long, long time,” instructs Morello.

Discussion about the tragedy should be an ongoing process. “So many times when there’s some kind of trauma like at Columbine or a divorce, we, as parents, have one conversation with our kids and we assume that’s all it took, and that’s the end of it. Parents need to have the opportunity to talk about this topic again with their children. Many times children don’t hear what we think they heard,” says Forehand.

Because they cannot comprehend the recent devastation and the loss of life the way adults can, children may at times seem callous or unaffected by the tragedy. That’s OK, says Tersigni. “It’s not going to faze some kids and we can’t expect them to be traumatized,” she says. Other children need time to slowly come to terms with the situation.

“When things are emotionally overwhelming, the first defense that children and adults use is denial. We’re simply going to need to anticipate that and give patient understanding to children if they need some time to assimilate, understand and put things in proper perspective,” explains Morello. As time passes, parents should be on the lookout for evidence of trauma in this and all age groups. Some common signs are acting-out behaviors, physical complaints, nightmares and a fear of going to school.

Since children at this age level are able to grasp some relatively complex concepts, the unfolding tragedies offer an opportunity to teach them valuable lessons about respect for authority, the importance of security, the benefits of working as a team and the value of peace. Talk together about the “good guys” who are stepping up to protect our country and helping the victims of the recent violence. Discuss how this event has helped our country band together.

Discussing issues with kids 12 and older

Adolescents are able to reason as adults, so they cannot be reassured that terrorists will never strike again. “You’ve got to be honest, because it’s part of kids’ maturing to accept that it’s an imperfect world,” says Tersigni. Older children still need some reassurance from their parents in order to feel safe, however. Emphasize that they are your top priority. Explain that the government is taking every measure to protect all Americans. Empathize with their fears.

Teens should be included in discussions with adults about the different ways our country should respond to the recent attacks and what the ramifications of each manner of response might be. These discussions can offer an opportunity to teach how a democracy works. Explain to them what it means to participate in a government, rather than to be governed by one person or a group of persons.

“Many adolescents have become dismayed and essentially turned off because of the failings of many of our leaders in Washington. And now is the time for them to appreciate the value of the leaders who do represent us,” says Morello. “This is our opportunity as parents to try to reduce or eliminate the cynicism that has been fostered among so many adolescents regarding our form of government and way of life.”

Talking about the good

It’s hard, at first, to imagine that anything good can come out of mass murder and destruction, but there are glimmers of light here and there. Search for them and point them out to your children. Talk together about how people of all nationalities and walks of life have banded together to care for the wounded and support those who have lost loved ones. Think of ways you can help as a family. Reminisce about the happy times you had with a loved one who was lost in the tragedy. Talk about how lucky you feel to still be on Earth with your child. Wrap your arms around each other and don’t talk at all.


“Young children don’t need to hear about what America’s response back is going to be. They don’t need to hear about more outbreaks of violence, more wars,” states child psychologist Vincent Morello. Inevitably, however, discussions about the US’s retaliation against the terrorists will have to take place with older children.

School-age children might better understand the concept of retaliation if a “bully” analogy is used. Parents might explain, “These are not people who are willing to work things out peacefully. They are bullies, so they have to be turned over to the authorities.”

Since the tragedies, emotions have run high, but parents must be sure that, in front of their children, their reactions are a model for how all types of violence should be handled.

“Adults cannot get carried away into knee jerk reactions of retaliation. They should not say to their children, ‘we’re going to shoot up these s.o.b.s’ or ‘we’re going to level them,’ because saying those things makes children feel that the way to respond to violence is with immediacy and even more violence,” comments Morello. Children need to see that adults are taking time to think things over, and are responding to the situation in a manner that solves the problem in a thoughtful way. “We don’t want children to feel, essentially, that we’re going to outperform the terrorists and beat them at their own game,” Morello explains.

Kelly de la Rocha is a freelance writer and editor. She is grateful for the opportunity to ease her son’s and daughter’s fears about the terrorist attacks.

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