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

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Jessica DuLong

Published May 15, 2021

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.