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How to talk to your kids about 9/11

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I don't know how I would talk to my child about 9/11. I'm currently not a parent, and I secretly fear days like the one on which I'm asked to explain what happened on that stark September day.

If I am to be a parent, my child will be told years from now what happened. Sept. 11, 2001 will be a past event, written into dog-eared school history books with American flags on the cover.

But 9/11 - as all significant American moments - remains seared in my experience and shaded by what followed.

How would I - but more importantly, how should I - how should we - tell our children about what happened?

Complete coverage: 9/11 anniversary

I go back to that day and imagine the scenes that unfolded: Moms and dads held their children as footage of the towers replayed again and again on all the networks. Some parents had to explain that a mom or dad wasn't coming home that night.

I can't fathom these parents' bravery.

I recently met MaryEllen Salamone, of North Caldwell, N.J. On Sept. 11, 2001, she was going about her day as usual, shuttling her small children to school. Alex was 6, Aidan was 4, and Anna was 2. Her husband, John T. Salamone, a 37-year-old preferred stock trader for Cantor Fitzgerald, was already at work on the 104th floor of the North Tower when she heard the news on her car radio.

"I thought it was just a small plane, but it was scary still," Salamone said. "I knew almost immediately it was worse. I tried all of the office numbers and nothing went through. I dropped my son off at school. It was on the TV there."

"I left my son at school, and my father called me," Salamone said. "He was working at the Meadowlands. I knew it was bad. I was asking him questions and he wasn't answering me and he was very vague. I knew it had to be awful from his vantage point."

Salamone's husband didn't survive.

"When the tower came down, you wanted to hold on to hope," she said. "But I kind of knew at that moment that he was dead. So I told my kids pretty much straight off that there was a good chance that he didn't live."

That weekend, she said she sat down and had a talk with her kids about what happened.

"My kids ask a lot of questions about 9/11," Salamone said. "The unique thing about kids is that they experience death when it happens and then again at each developmental stage as they are growing."

She added, "I can't tell you how many people said that I was lucky that they're dad died when they were so young because they'd get over it no time. What people don't understand is that kids are resilient, but they don't 'get over it.' In fact, they learn to process it over the course of their childhood."

In the following weeks, Salamone said, she found help for her children to cope with the loss of their father.

"I got information. I did everything I felt like I could to prepare myself," she said. "That's the thing as a parent. You have to find a way to take care of yourself, but at the same time take care of your children. You have to put yourself on the back burner. Not forever - just as the moment dictates."

Salamone, who became co-founder of Families of September 11, says she tried and tries to keep the lines of communication open with her kids.

"My kids want to talk about it, and whether I want to or not, I'm going to talk about it," she said.

That's a good approach for all parents - whether they lost someone on 9/11 or are speaking to their kids about the day for the first time, according to psychologist Dr. Robin Goodman, executive director and program director of A Caring Hand, The Billy Esposito Foundation and Bereavement Program.

Video: Dr. Robin Goodman on how to talk to your kids about 9/11

Goodman, who helped families dealing with a loss following 9/11, recalled, "When it happened, it was impossible to shield children from information."

Children across the U.S. saw the live news feeds from the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pa. This uncensored view of the day's events - and especially the repeated images throughout the day of the towers falling - can be very difficult and confusing for children.

Dr. Elissa Brown, who provided therapy to the children who were in schools south of Canal Street in New York and ran a therapy program for the children and wives of the first responders, says that in the days after 9/11, she told parents to turn off the TV, particularly for young children.

She said, "Imagine if you didn't understand the idea of videotaped footage - you'd think that building after building was coming down."

And with the 10th anniversary upon us, those images are repeated once more. Goodman stresses that parents - like those she counseled after the attacks - continue to act as a filter for their children through talking.

Salamone, too, says an ongoing conversation about what happened is important for kids. Her children continue to ask her questions about how their father died. And the questions aren't always easy to confront.

"(My kids) are so brutal," Salamone said. "In our case, we have no answer. We don't know how my husband died. ... Most of the people that jumped were from Cantor-Fitzgerald - mostly from above the impact (of the plane). I tell them that. We don't know how he died. We just know that people died immediately, people died when the towers came down, people died from the smoke. (I tell them) 'We don't know your dad died.' And yes, it is brutally hard to tell your child that. ... When they were younger, I told them angels took him because that's where they were developmentally. When they get older, that answer's not fair anymore."

Cecilia Kauth lost her father when she was 15 years old. Her father, Don Kauth, was killed working at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods on the 89th floor of the World Trade Center's South Tower.

Nationwide bike ride honors dad who died on 9/11
Pictures: Cecelia Kauth's ride across the U.S. in memory of her father

Kauth recalls that her mother's openness helped her deal with the loss.

"On that day, she kept me in the loop completely and didn't try to sugarcoat things for me," Kauth said. "She (told me) exactly when they found the remains of my father. She was very honest and let me in on the information. I observed it, and she thought I could handle it. She thought, 'He's my father and I deserve to know what's happening.' She wanted to start the coping process with honesty. As a 15-year-old I had to deal with a lot of complex emotions. ... I see that day as a transition from childhood to adulthood."

Parents, Salamone says, are often reluctant to talk about 9/11 because they don't want to expose them to the realities of the day.

"They're afraid it to bring it up at all because it'll make a child sad," Salamone said. "You want to protect them, it's very painful to talk about 9/11. But they don't have the intellectual capacity to figure it out in their heads, and they're looking to you to help them process it. So if your child asks you questions and want to know about it, give them permission to be sad, give them permission to have feelings. Feelings aren't bad. ... You have to give them permission to feel, however they feel."

Goodman adds, "Parents naturally want to protect their children from sad and scary things and experiences, but it is not necessarily in their best interest. Children do best when parents help them feel informed and prepared for what they will encounter in life - good and bad."

Firsthand knowledge of 9/11 is non-existent for children today who are younger than 10, but Goodman notes they still might be wondering what's going on and may be confused about what they're seeing on the news.

So where should parents begin?

Goodman suggests parents start by listening more and talking less.

She explained, "A good place to start can be with general questions to find out both what their children know and how they feel about 9/11."

This is a time when parents can address and correct any misinformation, Goodman says.

"Some school-age children may have a particular memory of 9/11, but it is important to update it (and) check it for accuracy," Goodman explained. "They have an ability and often interest in the details of an event as they strive to understand it. Be ready to say that you do not have all the answers but search and explore for answers."

And, as time passes, parents' firsthand accounts and memories and feelings about the day, Goodman says, will be a rich resource for kids to better understand something they're just reading about in school.

Salamone says children today also need to be reminded that some people survived and went on to do amazing, inspiring things, and that the day's tragedy led to changes that make us safer.

"Attach the positives," she said. "It's so much safer to fly in a plane now. A lot of people died, but more people got out."

Children, Goodman reminds us, are looking to adults and especially their parents as role models.

"Adult caregivers can model how to express and cope with various emotions," she said. "It is an especially great time to use the anniversary as a teachable moment about both feelings and tolerance."

More resources for parents and teachers about talking to children about 9/11:

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