This weekend we remembered September 11. The damage done. The lives lost. The families devastated. For all those with small children, isn't it flabbergasting to think they were not even alive when it happened? An event so salient everyone can remember exactly where they were and how they responded. It saddens me that it is these types of devastating events that create that type of permanent crystal clear memory for us. The assassination of JFK or Martin Luther King Jr. The death of Princess Diana. The Oklahoma City bombing. Where are the beautiful memories that can be seared into our brains with this clarity? Are they out there?
As we went to the flag tribute here in Lubbock, my children asked the most important question, "Why do they put the flags out every year?" We looked at each other and shared the same thought, "How much do you tell them? How do you explain the evil in the world to children?"
What we did was tell them the truth. We kept it simple and then answered any questions they had openly and honestly. From a psychological standpoint, this is what I recommend to families. Even with difficult topics like tragedies, death, and divorce, and with positive but sometimes emotional topics like adoption, remarriage, or even a family move, the best thing for children is honesty. It is not necessary to give them exhaustive details or expose them to inappropriate information, but when handled with sensitivity, children can comprehend even complex events. Not knowing, being lied to, or being left out is more confusing and in the end damaging then just an open conversation.
I work with families in my psychology practice to help them know how to approach these issues. How do you help children understand death? We recently took our children to my grandmother’s funeral. Some people questioned taking children so small, and some issues were difficult for them (seeing their grandmother cry), but overall, this open approach helped them understand the loss. When siblings die, children need a place to openly express their confusion, fear, sadness, and adults need to help them understand. Other situations such as a divorce require similar levels of sensitivity and more long-term discussions. Again, providing basic, honest information is the best approach and then answer any questions your child asks. Do not burden them with information about parental disagreements, affairs, or court dates, but explain exactly what will happen and then work together to create stability.
So back to September 11 - we told our children about the planes. We told them that each flag represented a person killed. My son asked, "Were they trying to turn the plane around?" His sweet mind is thinking it must surely have been an accident. "No," we told him sadly, "It was on purpose." I know they don't fully comprehend the loss or terror, but they need to know. Everyone needs to know and look at whether any lessons were learned.
A blog I read provided a link to a page with profiles of all the people lost, Legacy.com. I followed several Facebook posts from friends or blog groups asking if people remembered where they were. Hundreds of responses poured in. We remember.
Julie Bates – mother of 4, clinical psychologist, owner SeekingSitters Lubbock