What We Learned from Kids’ Letters About 9/11

The terrorist attacks on American soil on 9/11/2001 changed the world forever. Among those experiencing our collective trauma were children, in shock and fearful.  Some of these kids wrote letters to Highlights to express their sorrow and confusion. Some sent us poems they’d written, seeming to intuit that their memory of this event needed to be captured and preserved in a deep and lasting way. Other children sent drawings, which didn’t require training as an art therapist to understand that they were expressing really big feelings.  
We can’t help but wonder how these kids are doing today, 20 years later.  

Some researchers say that—except for those children who suffered the immeasurable loss of a loved one and for those who were in and near the areas of the attacks—most kids did not show longer-term symptoms of distress.  Although shaken in the moment and perhaps for some time to come, most of the children showed remarkable resilience. They adapted to how the country changed and do not appear to have suffered deep, emotional scarring. One study suggests that the horrific attacks did influence some kids’ world view in a measurable way. About 20 percent of those surveyed said the event led them to choose careers in fields such as politics, public policy, and the military. But for the majority of children, this defining event may not have truly defined them.

Generations of Highlights kids have lived through traumatic events in America and have written to us over the decades as they tried to process their emotions. We have letters from children who, at a formative age, felt deeply the horror of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the Oklahoma City bombing, the first mass school shooting at Columbine, and the explosion of the Challenger spaceship. Their grief and fear are clear in the letters, poems, and drawings, some of which are shared in the book Dear Highlights: What Adults Can Learn From 75 Years of Letters and Conversations with Kids. We responded to these children, just as we respond to every child who has ever written to us—with empathy, validation, and reassurance.

Through our decades of correspondence with children, we’ve come to see that kids don’t necessarily expect us to have clear answers about a tragedy in its aftermath, but they trust us to tell them the truth and reassure them that they don’t have to fear that truth.  Good still exists in the world, we tell them every time, and many people are fighting for it, with courage and resolve.

As much as it pains us, we can’t fully protect kids from the experiences that reveal all too well evil and suffering. But if we adults step up to listen to kids’ thoughts and feelings and show them how to choose hope over despair, we help them build the resilience they need to thrive.

Christine French Cully

Christine French Cully is Chief Purpose Officer and Editor in Chief at Highlights for Children. As Chief Purpose Officer, Cully’s focus is on growing awareness and implementation of the Highlights purpose, core beliefs, and values—to help actualize the organization’s vision for a world where all children can become people who can change the world for the better....