parenting q&a: How to help children cope with the 9/11 anniversary
Rather than write about a reader question today, I wanted to share with you some ideas about how young children react to the anniversary of big events and disasters and how parents can help them. My husband Jack, who is also a child and adult psychoanalyst, and I wrote the piece below for the first anniversary of 9/11. There are bound to be newspaper and TV references this week. I hope you find these words helpful and that we keep in our thoughts those who died, those who helped and those who live on.
Everyone in the country will soon be noting the first anniversary of the terrible events of Sept. 11, 2001. Many lives were directly affected, and nobody was untouched by the intense feelings of that day and afterward. Those feelings continue to resonate and will be heightened as we approach Sept. 11, 2002. Young children are exquisitely sensitive to the moods of those around them and so we should give some thought to helping little ones during the coming weeks.
Last year, we found that children’s anxiety diminished markedly as soon as they were protected from television coverage - horrific images coming into their own living rooms overwhelmed and confused them, as did the feelings of their parents and caretakers watching. As the media address the anniversary, we can protect our children from being re-traumatized by making sure that they do not see the images repeated on television. Radio is less intrusive, but news overheard and not discussed or explained, for instance heard while riding in the car, can be frightening.
Parents’ and caretakers’ reactions define the world for young children, so we should be mindful of our own feelings. We can take good care of children when we take good care of ourselves. Grownups can give each other opportunities to talk with others about their memories and reactions to 9/11. This will keep the adults on an even keel, thus reassuring the children.
Security also comes from feeling capable - the definition of trauma is feeling helpless. Talking about what people have done to help each other will help children master the big feelings around these events. There is the work of firefighters and police officers; there are the people who drive diggers and trucks, and construction people who make buildings safe and strong again; there are moms and dads who collected food and clothing for the people who needed it. Children worked too, selling lemonade and collecting cans to raise money for the helpers. All these people have taught us how much we can do to make things safe and good again.
Lastly, we can acknowledge the feelings everyone shares. People were indeed very sad and even scared, and they will always remember the sad parts of those days. People have also gone on making supper, going to work and school, and taking care of each other.
Kerry Kelly Novick is a local child, adolescent and adult
psychoanalyst, affiliated with the Michigan Psychoanalytic Institute
and the Michigan Psychoanalytic Council, and is a founder of Allen
Creek Preschool. You can reach her through