Dominic Capello, Director of the “Ten Talks Center” in New York and renowned expert on parent child communication, offers age-appropriate guidelines for how parents can talk with their kids about the recent tragedies. The guidelines include common questions children may ask and suggested answers parents can give.

You know your child the best—so use this information as a guideline and start talking together.

Before you begin

First ask your child:

  • What have you heard or seen about the attacks?
  • Where did you get your information? (Other kids on the playground? TV? Internet? Teacher?)

Having this information will help inform your response, based on your child’s age.

For young children in elementary school

A child’s concern: Children may ask, “What’s happened in New York?”

Response: A mother of a five year old in New York City offered this explanation to her son:

“Something very bad and sad happened in New York and in other cities. Two planes crashed into the big buildings downtown. Bad people took over two airplanes and crashed them into the World Trade buildings and many people died. Now many firemen, police officers, and doctors are trying to help all the people who got hurt. Police are also trying to find the bad people.”

A child’s concern: Children may be worried about mommy or daddy going to work. Children may be thinking, Will Dad’s or Mom’s office blow up? Or if their parents fly, children may be thinking, Will the plane be hijacked?

Response: Assure children that this kind of violent act almost never happens in the US It is shocking to of all of us, but most people are safe and will continue to be safe.

A mother is Washington DC offered the following to her sons:

“Your dad works downtown but he will be safe. He and his coworkers and the government are doing everything they can to make everyone safe.”

A child’s concern: Some children may ask, “Did children get hurt in the crashes or explosions?”

Response: Parents can say:

“Sadly, a few children may have been hurt. This is very sad. And we send our thoughts and prayers to the families of the children. But most American children are safe now.”

Let children know that if they have any questions about being safe it is okay to talk about these questions and any feelings of fear or sadness.

For children in fourth grade and older

A child’s concern: Older children might express the concern, “Why did this happen?”

Response: Parents can say:

“We don’t know exactly why this terrible act of violence has happened. We know that some people used the most extreme form of violence - murder of innocent civilians but we don’t know their reasons for this act of terrorism. There can be no sane reason for doing this.”

A child’s concern: Older children might express the concern, “What does our government do to keep us safe from this kind of violence?”

Response: Parents can say:

“The army and the police are working to make us safer. They are working to find the people who did this. We must let people know that violence against people is not a way to solve problem ever.”

A child’s concern: Kids of all ages may feel fearful. They may not say it, but they may feel very scared and shaken.

Ask children how they are feeling. Let them communicate their feelings. Some children’s expressions of feelings may seem inappropriate (For example, children tell such as jokes or saying, “It’s not big deal”) so it may take some time for some children them to get in touch with their true feelings and to express them. Be patient. But check in with your kids daily to see how they feel and to ask if they have any questions. This may need to continue over the next few weeks or months.

Helping children feel safer

Talk about the news and provide lots of time for questions (if the children are older). Parents should watch the news with their children but young child may be overwhelmed by constant images of explosions and violence. Turning off the TV for while is very appropriate.

For younger children who may show little interest in the news it’s a good opportunity to spend time together, reading books that are comforting, and letting kids know how much they are loved.

All school age kids-students will hear about the attacks and ongoing events on the playground from other kids. Be prepared to offer your comfort when they return from school with stories (some of them potentially scary) from other kids.

Dominic Cappello is the director of the Ten Tallks Center in New York specializing in safety, health and communication programs for parents and the author of Ten Talks Parents Must Have With Their Children About Violence. He worked with the Kaiser Family Foundation and Nickelodeon to develop the national campaign on “Talking About Tough Issues.”