Talking to Kids About Terrorism — the New Post-9/11 Norms

“Why did God let such a bad thing happen?”

This was the first question asked of New York City firefighter Bob Barrett and Fire Safety Director Mike Bellone when they visited a Woodside, Queens day camp this summer. Many parents might be at a loss for words if asked this question by their own children; but these men, who were at Ground Zero throughout the entire recovery effort, are quick to turn such questions around and look at the situation from a positive perspective.

“When we get this kind of question, we try to say look at the things God gave us to help us through the recovery effort,” says Barrett. “We had good weather even through the winter months, and in nine months there was only one major injury to a rescue worker.”

The men who have been visiting schools and day camps throughout the city and other parts of the country since March encourage children to look to the future. “Look at what you have left. One door closes and another opens,” says Barrett.

The 30-year veteran of the New York City Fire Department lost 15 members of his company, Ladder 20, on September 11, including his best friend, David Laforge. The loss was devastating to Barrett, but he manages to stay positive, “I met Mike and I have a new best friend,” he says referring to director Bellone.

Bellone says he felt a calling to go out and talk to people, especially children. “We are here for a reason, to go out and talk and share our experiences,” he says, adding that they’ve found kids do want to talk about the attacks. Each time he and Barrett go out to groups, more and more hands go up as each question is asked.

And the men answer every question. They show photos of the ruins and explain what it was like to work 20-hour days during the recovery effort. And they talk about their feelings. When a child asks Barrett what he felt like on the day of the attacks, he responds. “I felt like a parent not knowing where my kids were.”

Bellone’s advice to parents is, “Don’t brush off your kid’s questions. Even if you don’t know the answers, improvise. The only wrong answer is no answer.”

Child development experts agree.

“A dangerous trap for parents to fall into is when they don’t want to talk. The child gets the message that the subject makes mom upset or it makes dad angry. It becomes a taboo subject and the child may start making his own false assumptions,” says Judith Myers-Walls, associate professor of child development and parenting at Purdue University.

When talking with their children about terrorism, Myers-Walls says parents need to consider the child’s age and personality. “Is he a child who worries about everything and is easily upset or anxious, or is he more easygoing?”

Myers-Walls also encourages parents to pay attention to their children. “Don’t assume just because he doesn’t bring it up, it doesn’t mean he’s not thinking about it. Also, just because you spoke about the attacks when they happened doesn’t mean you’re done.”

She points out that the situation is constantly changing, with new information being added all the time. And keep in mind that each the child is one year older now, and “what they understood then is not what they understand now”. Children will continue to re-interpret the event, she explains.

If parents are too upset to talk with their children about the attacks, Myers-Walls advises they find a friend or relative who can do so.


Dominic Cappello, parent educator and author of Ten Talks Parents Must Have With Their Children About Violence, says adults need to reflect on their own feelings before discussing the events of September 11 with children.

“Coming up on the 9/11 anniversary, we will be hearing a lot about the tragedy and this will stir up feelings and emotions, some of which may have been dormant. As adults and parents, we need to be aware of our own feelings. We need to take quality time to think about how we feel about our lives now, before we talk to our children,” he says.

Cappello adds that it is important for adults to connect with peers, noting it is especially important for single parents to find a friend or relative with whom they can discuss their feelings.

Myers-Walls also advises parents to collect their own thoughts before talking with their children. “ If adults are feeling insecure, they need to look at their own environment and see what they can do to feel more secure.”

She adds that, through her research, she has the general sense that adults are more worried than kids. “Kids adjust relatively quickly to the new norm,” says Myers-Walls. “This is now normal. Adults must be careful not to put their own fears on top of their kid’s fears.”

To help adults sort through their feelings about the attacks and consequences of the events of 9/11, the Families and Work Institute, with a grant from the Bank One Foundation, has put together a collection of Web-based resources to help children, parents and educators prepare for the 9/11 anniversary. These resources include a workbook for people who work with children. The workbook takes the reader through a series of writing exercises to help put feelings into words. It covers a range of topics from “What Made 9/11 Traumatic” to “Lessons Learned from 9/11.” (See the article “9/11 as History: Classroom Help From the Experts”).

Related to the attacks and the war on terrorism is the issue of tolerance. Cappello believes this is a good time to check in with family values and discuss values about war and ways to find peace.

In the chapter in his book called “Rules to Live By ”, Cappello asks parents to consider their own beliefs and values and to think about the kind of person they want their child to be. Parents are advised to think about their own upbringing, and to develop family rules on violence and safety that could well include rules about tolerance.

“It’s all about parent’s values both spoken and unspoken — and both speak volumes,” says Cappello.

Myers-Walls advises parents to deal with specific misunderstandings and prejudices. “Parents have to try to balance caution with acceptance. Parents will pass their own prejudices on to their children,” she says.

In connection with the 9/11 anniversary, Myers-Walls suggests asking children if there is something they want to do. Help them think of something that might be needed now, one year later. Ask: what can we do to help people in general?

An important message to give to children is that of hope. Barrett and Bellone tell their audiences of children that heroes are in each of them and they spell it out this way: “H” is for health, “E” is for education, “R” is for respect, and “O” is for our future.