Lions, Tigers and Bears...Parenting Despite an Unpredictable "New Normal"


On 9/11 my children were 6 and 3 years old.  I can recall watching the news that morning along with so many others, in complete and utter shock.  After watching the buildings fall and the other crashes, sobbing, my first instinct was to get to my children and keep them safe.  I just needed to hold them close, feel their love and breathe in their innocence. Walking into the preschool to get my daughter, expecting to hear the familiar sounds of childhood, I was met with complete silence as the other parents picked up their children with fear and concern in their eyes.  We just silently met eye contact as we passed by, gave each other a knowing nod and held tight to those chubby toddler hands as we walked to our cars.  My daughter chatted all the way home about her day, blissfully and beautifully unaware of what had just happened and I was so thankful for that escape from reality.  Meeting my son at the bus stop, he immediately started asking questions.  To this day, I have no idea what the elementary school told the children. My guess is they didn't say anything official on the actual day, but my child knew something bad had just happened and he wanted answers.

How do you know what to say to a 6 year old when you have no idea what to say to yourself?  What is appropriate? And how in the world do you pull yourself together to find the words and maintain a brave front?  How can you, a parent- a superhero in your child's eyes - find a way to balance it all in way that you can process these events, grieve and help your children understand and cope? 


As parents, our first instinct is to protect and shield our children from anything that may disrupt their view of the world and sense of safety.  Unfortunately, there are several factors outside the element of your control.  First, children are very perceptive.  This is the stage of development when children are rapidly learning language, behavior, expression and their "schema" - their perception of their world.  They learn all this so quickly by watching and interpreting.  The most likely explanation of how my first grade son knew something went profoundly wrong on 9/11 is that he picked up on his teachers' mood and expressions, and therefore made himself more keenly aware of what they may have been saying to one another.  This is why you simply cannot avoid talking about these events, your children will know, and your lack of explanation will be interpreted by them in a negative way, causing them to be more fearful. How and what to say will vary depending upon the age of your child.  My 3 year old seemed oblivious to what was going on around her, so the solution for her was to make sure her routine and my interactions with her remained unchanged.  My husband and I sat my 6 year old down and simply asked him what he knew.  This gave us a gauge to determine how much to say.  You will need to balance their need to know with the common parental pitfall of overloading them with too much information.  This was a 6 year old with a 6 year old attention span, so you'd want to take that into consideration.  If he started to wander off in his mind, he may have missed parts of the conversation he needed to hear the most.  Keep your initial disclosure of the event as brief as you can without omitting important elements and allow him or her to ask questions.  Let them guide you..their questions and their responses will be the best road map for this conversation. 


A child needs to feel safe when their environment is uncertain.  As I mentioned above, they will know something is wrong without you saying a word. For preschool or kindergartners, gauge whether you need to talk to them by whether or not they are demonstrating any signs of distress.  Watch for common signs such as nightmares, aches and pains, frequent moodiness or crying.  As I mentioned for my 3 year old, she didn't demonstrate symptoms of a child who was scared, she appeared largely unaware of what was happening. For younger children who are showing signs of stress, you may consider talking over a quiet activity or during play.  Without having to tell them specifics, you can ask them to draw their feelings for you, and take the appropriate actions to make them feel safe.  Younger children have not yet developed the emotional intelligence to verbalize their feelings, so you will need to let their behavior tell you what you need to know. Have your disclosure conversation with older children on their level and territory.  Letting them tell you where they would like to talk is a great way to allow them to feel some element of control amidst the chaos.  There is no wrong answer here, as long as your child has your undivided attention.


Another balancing act.  You need to reassure your child they are safe without making false promises.  It's a parent you want to say everything is OK, or nothing bad will ever happen, but your child's trust in you will be shaken if you make promises you simply cannot keep.  Informing them our country is relatively safe compared to other countries, despite what has happened, is a good place to start.  Talk about people in our community that keep us safe.  Let them know who they can count on for protection. Allow them to ask questions, reassure them you will always be truthful in your answers and find a way to do that..even if it means you have to tell them you don't have an answer, while telling them you will always give them information that is absolutely necessary. Talk about specific measures you will be taking to keep them safe and instill a sense of pride and maturity in them by encouraging them to participate in your safety plan.  When I was little, there was a house fire in my neighborhood, killing 5 children.  I specifically remember sleeping on my parents' bedroom floor for days, afraid to be alone in my room should a fire start.  My father sat my sisters and myself down, and talked about specific things he had done to ensure we would not fall prey to a similar destiny.  After discussing our new smoke alarms, he laid out our safety plan, detailing what to do and where our family would meet in case of fire.  I slept better after that because the safety plan made me feel more in control and took away the "what if" that had been echoing in my mind.  Don't be afraid to establish a family safety plan, in fact I would recommend it.  Not only will it help with your anxiety, it will help your children feel a sense of control over the unpredictable.  Another way to reassure your child is to get them involved in activities to help victims and families rebuild their lives and heal.  Empower them to be helpful, show them the benefits of kindness and a strong, caring community.  Teach them goodness overcomes adversity, even in the darkest and most helpless times by modeling how acts of stewardship serve as a beacon of hope for those touched by tragedy.


You're human - you are undoubtedly feeling somewhat anxious and saddened.  Finding a way to be a safe place to your child during uncertain times while also processing your own fears and anxiety is a tough task.  I know it's difficult, but you must unplug from the news while you are in the presence of your child.  Not only should they not be seeing the suffering of others, they should not be around you when you are trying to process it.  Do whatever you need to do with your phone to avoid looking at the push notifications and constant reminders of tragedy. If you feel anxious disconnecting for fear you may miss an emergency, create a schedule with friends wherein someone is "on watch" and will call others if there is an emergency.  This will limit the time you are preoccupied with the crisis and help regulate your mood while with your child. Watch the news after your children are in bed and keep the volume low.  Children have big ears, and they are bigger when they are anxious.


As soon as you think you are in clear, your child will come to you with more questions as they continue to process what has happened.  It's important to note, not every parent is as savvy as you - you cannot control what your child hears once they leave your house without you.  After I really thought I nailed the disclosure conversation and subsequent answers on 9/11, my child went to school the next day.  When he came home he was angry because a classmate at school told him they saw people jumping off the buildings on the news.  The following day, I was asked why I hadn't told him people were still missing because another classmate told him families were on the news holding up pictures of missing victims. It shook his trust in me, and there was no way I could've prevented it because there was no way I was letting my 6 year old watch the news.  At this point my best tactic was to tell him it was my job to make sure he knows the important pieces of these stories and only the important pieces.  I asked him how it would change things for him to know the gory details and how did he feel now knowing them. I asked if he was upset because I didn't tell him "everything" or was he upset that these things were happening? The answer was the latter and my son learned to trust my judgement in knowing what to tell and what to omit for his own benefit.  It went on like this for what feels like an eternity because word was spreading in school and when children see or hear something over and over, it's as if they are seeing it for the first time and they are re-traumatized. I learned to be prepared for his questions and his tears.  It was in his artwork and his dreams and I worked pretty hard to make sure we had ample time to talk as we stuck to a routine.  Routines for a child are like swaddling blankets for infants.  They provide comfort, predictability and subsequently safety. Be prepared for questions, be prepared to feel frustrated, be prepared to repeat yourself and stick to a routine; there is no time more important to do so.


9/11 was a tough time to be a parent, but it was an isolated event.  There is no way anyone could have predicted how much unrest would follow a decade and half later. My children grew up in a country at war and were taught to be vigilant, just as yours will. I grieve for these children because they will never have a careless childhood.  They will not think the worst thing in the world is not knowing what to wear or who to sit with on the bus.  In today's world we are all recipients of continuous stories of tragedy, natural and unnatural.  They will be marked by terrorism, political unrest and war. It is indeed a tough time to be an adult, let alone a parent.  It is absolutely imperative you find a way to process what is happening in our country and our world - only then can you be the rock your children need you to be. Remember they are watching you, learning from you and your reaction to adversity. Be a strong role model for them - know when to ask for help or talk to a friend. In the therapy world, conversations about self care during crisis are common talk.  Stress is high, people are feeling more fearful, frustrated and saddened than in decades before.  But in contrast, we have a new understanding of the importance emotional health.  The stigma of "therapy" or "counseling" has decreased.  Conversations are happening in governments, schools and among friends. Moms, find your tribe and gain strength in numbers.  Set aside time when the kids are at school or after work to have coffee with friends to process what is happening and learn from each other.  Make a plan with your fellow moms that will foster a consistent message to the children in your child's social circle.  Join a group, talk to a professional.  Whatever it takes, do it for your children.  A mother is admired as the nurturer.  The safe place.  Nurture YOU so you can be just that.  It will be the best gift you can give your children.


Elizabeth Murphey is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in Richmond, Virginia.  Read more about Elizabeth and her services at

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