A PARENT’S GUIDE TO THE ATTACKS IN NEW YORK AND
Robert Beilke, Ph.D.
Pediatric Psychology Service
Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital and Health Center
These suggestions are to help you communicate with your children and promote in them a sense of
security and understanding in response to the apparent terrorist attacks in New York and Washington,
Children Need to Know They Are Safe Through Your Parental Presence
Children look to their parents to provide them with security and safety. Parents can assist
their children by:
Presenting a calm stance. The manner in which parents respond can have a direct effect upon how
well their children will respond to the horrific events of September 11, 2001. Even in the midst of
this national disaster, parents can have a calming influence. When talking with your children,
honestly share your feelings but be careful to offer a calm presentation. If your children have
witnessed strong emotional reactions, calmly explain to them the reason for these emotions and offer
reassurances of your well being and their safety.
Validating your child’s feelings. This is a potentially frightening time and children realize it. To
ignore or dismiss their feelings can either cause the parent to lose credibility in the child’s eyes or
sends the message to children that they cannot trust their own thoughts and feelings. Once you agree
with your child’s feelings of fear, anger, or sadness, then you can work on assisting the child in
Controlling their exposure to media coverage. Many children and adolescents have already viewed
the chilling scenes of the World Trade Center destruction, Pentagon damage, and general panic.
These scenes will continue to replay as well as new scenes of devastation coupled with reports of
A Parent’s Guide
carnage as the rescue and clean-up efforts move forward. If adults find these scenes frightening and
horrific, so will young people. Some practical suggestions include:
Limit the child’s exposure to the media coverage. In general, younger children should be exposed to less
news coverage than older children.
Know who in your family is watching the news coverage.
Sit with your child as she or he watches the television coverage.
Explain to your child the content of the news report in terms they can understand.
Removing your child’s sense of helplessness by becoming active. Children may have ideas regarding
what your family can do to support our nation during this time. This may include writing letters,
drawing pictures, displaying the American Flag, donating toys or money, lighting a candle for those
who lost their lives or loved ones, or religious acts. Children may benefit from knowing a parent has
donated blood. Parents may give permission for older adolescents to donate blood.
Work with your child’s school. If your child is in school, find out what is discussed in the classroom,
the type of news coverage shared at school and what school resources are available for your child.
Recognize if your children are having difficulties. Children may develop a variety of behaviors that
can tip you off that they are having a difficult time. Depending upon a child’s age, these can include
a sudden increase in insomnia, lack of concentration, defiant behavior, irritable mood, tearfulness,
bed-wetting, nightmares, bodily complaints, clinging behavior, or ritualistic behaviors.
Children Need to have Practical Information
Accurate information is a powerful coping tool for adults and children alike. Children
should be provided information that reassures them. Even young children will attempt to
understand and make meaning of these events. Listen to your child’s questions and fears,
even if they are raised when family members are engaged in discussing or watching the
news coverage of the events. Take time for your child.
If your children do not start the conversation, ask them what they have heard. Parents
should not assume that their children have not heard about this tragedy. Many children
have kept fears and inaccurate information to themselves. Parents have a tremendous
opportunity to relieve their children’s fears and provide accurate information to them.
Keep talking with your child and be available to him or her.
The type and amount of information should be appropriate for their age. The following
suggestions provide guidelines for parents. Please know that some suggestions located
under one age group may be suitable for another age group.
Late preschool and early elementary age children. Parents of children in this age range may wish
to ask their children if they have heard of the airplane crashes. Young children do not share an
interest in politics or news events. Rather, their interest will be in the safety of themselves, their
family and friends. Parents will need to decide how much to share with children in this age group.
It is recommended that information be limited to:
Simple explanations of the basic facts.
Reassurances that they are not alone and will not be left alone.
A Parent’s Guide
An explanation of where these events happened. Young children do not understand geography, they may
not realize that these incidents took place a very long way away. It will be helpful to show a child the
distance on a map or explain to the child how long it would take to drive to the East Coast.
Washington, D.C. is not the same as Washington State.
Children in this age group may require extra words and actions to reassure them of their safety and
convey your love for them. Additionally, young children may not verbalize their feelings but rather
act out with dolls, play, or draw what they are experiencing.
Middle to late elementary age children. It is very likely that children in this age group have already
heard of the four airline crashes and loss of life. It is likely that they have also latched onto bits of
information that are inaccurate (e.g., car bombs detonating, additional hijacking, or we are going to
war). This age group will benefit from accurate and specific information. Clear explanations of
what the government is doing to protect us (for example, added security precautions at the borders,
at airports, and high-profile locations). If a child in this age range asks about the future of terrorist
attacks, acknowledge that we cannot predict the future with 100% certainty but steps are being taken
to ensure our safety. Also, tell your children that you will tell them if their safety is threatened. In
this way, “No news, is good news.”
Adolescents. This age group will require more adult-like information. Provide accurate and more
detailed information to youth in this age range. For example, you may wish to explain their safety in
terms of the targets of these apparent terrorist attacks were most likely selected for their symbolic
value (striking at the heart of American military, business, and government) as well as for their
likelihood of causing a maximum loss of life. With more adult-like reasoning, parents can also
engage their adolescents in discussions regarding how our nation may respond to these attacks. This
can be a powerful opportunity to explain to young adults the greatness of our nation and how we
differ from terrorists.
Avoid prejudice. When talking with children of all ages, parents should be cautious when referring
to the suspected perpetrators of these acts. Parents will need to make a clear distinction between
individuals of a particular ethnic or religious group believed to have carried out these attacks from
other members of that ethnic or religious group. Our national history should remind us of the
terrible injustices committed when we lose sight of this. There are approximately 7 million people
of the Muslim faith living within the United States. Muslims, in general, have condemned these
acts. Please do not characterize Muslims as terrorists.
Children Need a Predictable Routine
Maintaining daily routines provides a child both consistency and predictability. These
result in an added measure of security for a child. We know that one goal of terrorism is
for fear to reign in the hearts of those attacked. By maintaining our routines, we tell our
children that they and we are safe. If children are taken out of school, sheltered in an
unusual manner or are exposed to a sudden increase of violent and frightening images,
then parents run the risk of increasing a child’s experience of fear.
As a nation, we will prevail through this difficult time. May our greatest national
treasure, our youth, prevail together with us.