How to talk to our kids about traumatic events, according to a 9/11 responder

Jessica DuLong, now chief engineer, emerita, is shown in 2008 in the engine room of the 1931 New York City fireboat John J. Harvey.

(CNN)Isaac Rothbart's twins had always known their daddy doesn't like fireworks. But he'd never told his kids why.

Then, while celebrating their fifth birthday at Disney World, the family wound up close to an unexpected pyrotechnics show. Rothbart "didn't react well." His wife noticed him shutting down and ushered the whole family indoors.
That's when Rothbart and his wife decided it was time to have the conversation with the kids. Rothbart had recorded an HBO documentary specifically geared toward teaching children about the September 11 attacks. That would be their conversation starter.
    Pandemic deaths, insurrections, terrorist attacks and endless video loops of police brutality and hate crimes present parents with continual pressures about how and when to share troubling and traumatizing news with our children. Those pressures are further compounded when we or our loved ones are personally affected.
      Only by accident did Rothbart and I wind up discussing how to tell kids about the deadliest terrorist attack on US soil. At the time, Rothbart, chief financial officer of the New York City Police Foundation, was trying to help me locate a photo from that terrible fall day in 2001. The cover art for my book, "Saved at the Seawall: Stories from the September 11 Boat Lift" was due at the printer.
        Jessica DuLong's book comes out May 15.
        "Could it be one of these?" he'd ask before sending over another file. We were speaking by phone while emailing back and forth as he dug through old hard drives looking for digital contact sheets.
        Through all my years working on this book, I had pored over hundreds of photographs from that day. Yet somehow, clicking open this particular image stopped me short. My "ooph" came out involuntarily.
          The photo was not the most poignant or revealing I'd ever seen. Taken from an NYPD Aviation Unit helicopter, the image on the contact sheet was tiny, rather dark, cocked at an odd angle. But something about the enormity of the dust cloud photographed from such height and distance brought forth all the horror.
          "Sorry," I replied, to account for my extended silence. "After all this time, I thought I was immune."
          "It's OK," Rothbart said. "I was at Stuyvesant High School that day." That quick disclosure communicated whole worlds of understanding.
          "I guess this is why I still hide this history from my kids."
          It has been nearly 20 years since I served at Ground Zero as a marine engineer aboard retired NYC fireboat John J. Harvey. But I still haven't told my 9- and 5-year-olds about the terrorist attacks — or that I was down there. The countless hours I've poured into reporting and writing this book have taken place behind closed doors, where I'm quick to bury the evidence on my desk rather than face questions from my children.
          Maira Kalman's picture book "Fireboat: The Heroic Adventures of the John J. Harvey" features author Jessica DuLong.
          My conversations with Rothbart, however, convinced me that this is the year to share the truth. I have read all the Child Mind Institute tip sheets: "Helping Children Cope With Frightening News," "Helping Children Deal With Grief," "Talking to Kids About Racism and Violence." The subtitle of that last one promised exactly the help I needed: "Supporting children while navigating your own big emotions." But bullet point three from "Frightening News" — "model calm" — left me far less optimistic.
          I reached out to David Anderson, Child Mind's vice president of school and community programs, who helps parents and caretakers discuss all kinds of difficult topics. I later discovered that Rothbart had intuitively put into practice with his own children many of the approaches that Anderson recommended.
          DuLong is shown in the fireboat's engine room, where she worked.
          Anderson's core message for parents struggling with difficult disclosure decisions is quite simple: "Your children are ready to hear about what's going on in the world — from you." That's much better, he argues, than their hearing about it from others — especially someone who's not "a close attachment figure" with whom children can more easily process their feelings. "The real question is," he prods, "are you ready to tell them?"
          In a word, no. But I'm trying to get there. I recognize that my silence is not serving my need to protect my kids. Rothbart's story inspired me to look up that HBO documentary. Turns out filmmaker Amy Schatz created "What Happened on September 11" after hearing about a curious third grader who googled "Sept. 11 attacks" with a friend on a playdate. Ouch.
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