Skip Navigation
October 7, 2015 | 24th Tishrei 5776

Guidelines for Parents on the Anniversary of 9/11/01

by Rabbi Edythe Mencher

Naturally, we wish to shield our children from distressing information so that their childhoods can be as secure and happy as possible. But despite all our efforts to protect them from pain, all but the very youngest children will hear about and become aware of the anniversary whether we mention it or not. There will be continuous coverage on television and other forms of media, and children may overhear adults talking about it. By discussing the anniversary with our children, we have an opportunity to answer their questions, clear up misinformation and sensitively address their concerns. We can help them to feel safe during a confusing and stressful time. The way we respond during difficult times can help our children learn ways to manage adverse events without losing optimism and trust.

Our tradition balances memory and commemoration with a continuous concern with restoring hope and full and satisfying engagement in our ongoing lives even after loss. Judaism also offers us guidelines to taking positive action to make our world a more loving and secure one. Here are some general guidelines to help you address this anniversary with your children of all ages.

  • Avoid over exposure to graphic images of the disaster. One Jewish teaching is that there were no real windows on Noah’s ark because it is wrong to look upon the suffering of others when we cannot help. At a certain point an averted gaze is respectful and self-protective.

  • Not everyone shows sadness and fear with tears and expressions of worry; each person reacts according to temperament, age, previous experiences and current life situation. Many quickly convert sad and frightened feelings into irritability, argumentativeness and anger and denial that anything is bothering them. We need to be alert to these differences and try to not respond with anger but rather with limits, compassion and support and conversations when calm is restored. Try to become aware of your own feelings and reactions and to be prepared for the possibility that your children’s reactions may be very different from yours.

  • Don’t avoid difficult conversations. Encourage children to share what they have heard and talk about their feelings. Listen. Try to choose a time to talk when children are calm and not likely to be interrupted. Answer questions with facts appropriate to the person’s age and capacity to understand. Be aware that if the child (or adult) has had another recent loss, trauma or serious life stress he is more likely to have his feelings stirred by hearing about and thinking about the events of 9/11.

  • Try to help yourself and your children to feel safe and hopeful. This is best accomplished by reminders of reasons for hopefulness and of the presence of caring, protective others in our lives. While acknowledging that this tragedy came about because of people who did something wrong, cruel and terribly destructive, remind children that other people did good, generous, self-sacrificing, brave and kind things to try to rescue others and to comfort and help them in the days, months and years following the attacks. Check out these stories of people who “turned grief into action.”

  • Learn and teach your children ways of moving from anxiety and fear to a state of greater calm. These include deep breathing, repetitive prayer, returning in imagination to times and places of peace and safety and engaging in pleasant and distracting activities. And, make sure your children know what to do in an emergency.

  • Children and adults may have questions about how God could let this happen. It is important to think through your own reactions and then respond to your child’s concerns. Our children can be comforted to know that a Jewish view of God includes an understanding of God as a loving Parent who is with us in our sorrow and joy as a source of love, solace and guidance.

  • Judaism teaches that we make a difference in our world and that the proper response to loss and tragedy are further efforts to repair the world. Include your children in choosing meaningful activities that affirm that none of us is powerless and that energy devoted to caring for others increases the good in the world, like sending cards to people who help to keep us safe, writing stories, visiting people who are ill or giving tzedakah to causes that diminish suffering. For more ideas, explore these resources on building resilience from Dr. Ken Ginsburg.

We respond to each child according to his or her needs, age and temperament—much as we do at the Passover seder when we try to tell the story of the Exodus in a way that each child might understand. The story of our being freed from Egypt is conveys hope after hardship and pain, and this continues to be the goal of Jewish life and parenting.

  • Preschool-aged children are the ones most likely to be confused about the distinction between the past and the present. Listen carefully for distortions and clarify the facts. Playing out scenes of block buildings falling, planes crashing and people falling may seem a bit grisly to grown-ups, but it is a way of mastering feelings for young children. They will be most concerned with their own safety and about something happening to the people whom they love and depend upon. Also explain how rare an event this was and that the grown-ups in their world will stay with them will work hard to keep them safe.

  • School-aged children are concerned with their own safety and that of people close to them, but they are also concerned with fairness and punishment. They may ask many questions and pull for details that end up upsetting them as they grapple to understand and try to find solutions. They will want to hear stories of heroics and be involved in mastering helplessness by expressing ways they might have acted. Even if they come up with some pretty preposterous ideas about how they would have prevented the tragedy or escaped, they should be allowed to hold onto their personally satisfying solutions unless there is concern that they might actually do something dangerous.

  • Teens are able to discuss the ethical and political aspects of the disaster. Some teens are old enough to remember 9/11 and so need a chance to process where they were when they heard about it, how they felt and what they remember. Some may have opinions that their parents may find provocative or extreme which often are linked to their own anxiety covered over by defiance. Others may express despair and a sense of shaken idealism. Despite the more exaggerated or aggressive positions they take, their need for parental calm, optimism, protection and reassurance is as great as with preschoolers. Some teens may not pause from their preoccupation with their own lives long enough to show reaction to the anniversary and this is also acceptable but parents should still offer the opportunity for conversation. In the unlikely event that they seem poised to take dangerous action based upon feelings of outrage or vulnerability parents need to set limits while trying to convey acceptance for their feelings.

Children and adults whose lives were directly affected by the events on September 11 will be much more likely to react even more strongly than will others. It is important that teachers, child-care providers, coaches and other adults significantly involved in their lives know how the child or teen might be feeling.

  • If a loved one died on 9/11, then “anniversary reactions” can occur, with sudden, often overwhelming feelings of sadness, fear, hopelessness and anxiety. People dealing with these feelings need privacy, solace and opportunity to speak about feelings. Judaism marks anniversaries of deaths with the lighting of a candle and encouraging people to come to synagogue to say the memorial prayer (Kaddish). In this way the person is given a concrete action to take to memorialize their loved one and is surrounded by a supportive community. Those who have had a recent loss, trauma or major life disruption are also much more vulnerable and benefit from the same provisions of comfort and support.

  • Children who are already feeling vulnerable because of a physical disability (that may make them feel they would have a harder time in an emergency) or because they have emotional difficulties like depression, anxiety disorders, hyperactivity or developmental delays need our special awareness, comfort and presence. Being in an atmosphere where sad, frightening and confusing subjects are discussed can heighten already existing distress.

  • Most children will react with a flurry of questions, reactions, even anxiety that may persist for a few days and then will return to their usual selves. Some may want to be closer to parents, express worries or have bad dreams. Use your knowledge of your own child as a way of gauging when reactions require more help; in general, if tearfulness, worry and distress persist it is important to seek guidance from a licensed mental health professional.

Comments left on this website are monitored. By posting a comment you are in agreement with Terms & Conditions.

URJ logo

Donate Now



Multimedia Icon Multimedia:  Photos  |  Videos  |  Podcasts  |  Webinars
Bookmark and Share About Us  |  Careers  |  Privacy Policy
Copyright Union for Reform Judaism 2015.  All Rights Reserved