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Family Matters Blog: Parents Should Stress Safety at 9/11 Anniversary

By Lisa Daniel
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Sept. 8, 2012 – With the anniversary of 9/11 upon us, families may be considering how best to commemorate the terrorist attacks of 11 years ago.

Many installations will have remembrance ceremonies, although they likely will be on a smaller scale than for the 10-year anniversary. Regardless of whether you attend such events, how you talk to children about 9/11 is important and especially for military families, according to Dr. Stephen Cozza, associate director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md.

“With military families, 9/11 is an opportunity to remind children about the meaning of deployments,” Cozza said. “I think we can get a little disconnected from the mission, and having your parent away is hard. Remembering 9/11 draws us back to understanding what we’re doing [in Afghanistan]. It’s helpful and can lend certain meaning to know the military is still involved.”

And, he added, “There is certainly pride in knowing that your parent is working to prevent this from happening again.”

Discussions with children about 9/11 should be age-appropriate and based on information the child needs and is ready for, as well as the family’s personal connection to the tragedy, Cozza said. For those closely impacted by 9/11, children can benefit by memorializing the day with drawings, crafts, or poetry, or by putting up flags or visiting grave sites, he said.

Cozza suggests limiting children’s viewing of graphic 9/11 images on television and the Internet. Replays of the event can be both confusing and distressing, he said.

But as the topic comes up, it is a good chance for parents to reframe some of what children may have heard about the terrorist attacks, and “it’s a good way for them to know they can talk with their parents about tough issues,” Cozza said.

Children can become anxious from warnings about ongoing terrorist threats, so conversations should focus on safety and preparedness, Cozza said. The anniversary is a good time to explain the increased security at military bases, airports and government buildings, along with the message that such measures keep us safe.

“We don’t want to inundate kids with information that might be frightening for them,” he said. “Our job is to listen and be understanding.”

Cozza, an advisor to Sesame Street’s Let’s Get Ready program for disaster preparedness, framed a discussion with young children this way: “There was terrorist event and that is when people do bad things to hurt people without any reason. This is the time for us to remember the people who died.”

“We never want to promise kids that bad things aren’t going to happen,” but they should know that such events are rare, Cozza said.

Children can feel empowered by being prepared, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency has a website especially for kids to help them prepare for all types of emergencies at www.fema.gov/kids.

“That sense of mastery is really important to kids’ sense of emotional competence,” he said.

The website for the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress includes pages for helping children through traumatic events, as does that of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, which includes talking to children about mass shootings.

Cozza said parents should resist inclinations to avoid talking about tough topics. “It’s not that we can’t talk to children about these things, it’s finding the right ways to talk to them. In post-disaster situations, we always want to balance our understanding of risk and resilience and strength.”

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