Sunday, Sept. 11, 2011, marks the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and is a time for all to remember the horrific attack on U.S. soil, honor those who lost their lives, and think about what it means to live in a free country.

For parents, figuring out how to observe the date with their children can be difficult and emotional: How much is too much? How much is too little?

Chaundra Haynes, a mother and PTA vice president from Detroit, decided that her kids, ages 4 and 6, are too young and inquisitive to be brought into a discussion about 9/11 and the 10th anniversary. “I’m not ready for the questions I know will come,” she says. “I will definitely keep images out of reach....Parenting is so challenging, and the horrors of the world make it that much more challenging.”

Some parents, however, won’t have the option of shielding their children. Many families, especially those in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Washington, suffered personal losses. And across the country, schools in most cities and towns will hold ceremonies and special programs commemorating the anniversary.

Philip Lazarus, president of the National Association of School Psychologists, whose members number 26,000, recommends an emphasis on resilience and gratitude. “9/11 might be an especially good time to appreciate our blessings,” he says, “to appreciate all we have because we do live in the U.S.A.”

Lazarus says parents should find out what their child’s school is planning and when, so they can prepare their child. Most elementary and middle school students were not born or were very young during the time of the attacks, so they won’t have memories, say, of exactly where they were when the World Trade Center towers fell. Still, some kids will have a hard time.

“Parents need to be prepared for children to experience a surfacing of emotions,” Lazarus says. “The range of emotions will depend on the child’s personality. Some factors that will influence a child's reactions include a child’s trauma history, their exposure to death and destruction, their proximity to the event, and, most importantly, whether they lost family, friends, or other loved ones in the tragedy.”

Lazarus said parents should seek help at school. “We see schools as community anchors. Information passed from school to community helps people of all ages.” He reminds parents that school psychologists are mental health professionals who are trained to help families in crisis. School counselors can also help parents and children child handle the emotional weight of the anniversary.

Parents should remember to talk with their child’s teachers. Since the school year has just begun, teachers don’t yet know each child’s personality and history. Parents should address their concerns with their child’s teachers and make a plan to work together to determine the best way to support the child.

Lazarus urges parents to express their feelings of sadness about 9/11 and the anniversary but not to let the feelings become overwhelming. “Children mirror the emotions of their parents,” he says. If children see their parents remaining calm, they will feel safe and secure.

For children who are afraid, emphasize how safe the U.S. has been in the past decade. “Most of us don’t wake up [today] and wonder about a terrorist attack,” Lazarus says, noting that in the days following 9/11, many children and parents wondered whether another attack was looming. With older children, parents can talk about the Department of Homeland Security and how many people work hard to protect the country.

Here are some tips for parents from Lazarus:

  • Keep your child’s routine normal, but be flexible. While children draw strength from familiar routines, those struggling with sadness, anger, and confusion about 9/11 may need relief from hectic schedules, tests, and other everyday activities that could cause greater stress.

  • Spend time listening to your child. Talk to your child, answer your child’s questions, but most important, listen. Your child might want to express her feelings through writing, art, or music.

  • Limit media exposure. Kids are exposed to media images through television, newspapers, social networking sites, cell phones, and other technological devices, and even in some supermarkets where flat-screen televisions are located near checkout lines.

  • Protect kids in the days surrounding the anniversary by unplugging from technology and enjoying low-tech family activities like board games, hiking, sports, and family movie nights. Listen to favorite songs in the car, not to the radio. If your child has to get on the Internet, watch closely.

  • Find teachable moments. For older kids, the anniversary of 9/11 offers a chance to talk about U.S. history, the Bill of Rights, the U.S. Constitution, and what it means to live in a democracy. You can talk about 9/11 indirectly by emphasizing the broader themes that have shaped our country.

If children want to talk about the 9/11 attacks and the anniversary, Lazarus says to emphasize the resilience Americans showed in the aftermath of the attacks. Parents can also discuss other examples of resilience throughout the country’s history and can find examples of resilience in their own families and community.

Perhaps most important, Lazarus says, is for families to find positive ways to mark the anniversary of 9/11. The sky’s the limit in terms of ideas, but some Lazarus suggested include baking cookies and delivering them to local fire and police stations; singing patriotic songs; eating a special family meal together; going for a hike or some other outdoor activity; and showing love and gratitude at every opportunity. Focusing on the positive can make the anniversary a special, albeit sad, day, but not one of anxiety, fear, and confusion.

For many parents, the anniversary of 9/11 is bound to bring up feelings of dread. But by planning ahead and thinking about how they want their family to observe the day, parents can feel less stressed and more prepared—and so can their children. The anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks is an unavoidable part of U.S. history. It’s an event that can transcend images of planes crashing into buildings and become a chance for families to connect and teach their children how to learn and grow from adversity and commemorate this important date.

9/11-Related Sites for Parents

“The New School Year and Sept. 11th: Helping Children Navigate the Words and Images of 9/11”
This article from the Traumatic Loss Coalitions for Youth, a suicide prevention program based in New Jersey, offers tips from a pediatric and psychiatric nurse.

Tribute WTC Visitor Center Classroom Toolkit
This toolkit for parents and teachers from the World Trade Center tribute site contains a wide variety of downloadable materials, including personal stories, a timeline of 9/11, and information about the variety of school curriculum areas covered by studying 9/11.