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American Kids After 9/11

American Kids After 9/11
WebMD Feature

The vast majority of American children probably were not traumatized by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, experts say. There are, however, clear exceptions, as research on kids in New York City shows.

A study commissioned by the New York public school system six months after the attacks found that city school kids had a higher rate of mental problems than would be expected under normal circumstances. More than 10% of the students surveyed had symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These symptoms include flashbacks to the event, feeling numbness or detachment from everyday life, irritability, angry outbursts, and trouble concentrating.

This study looked at children in grades four to 12. Another study under way aims to find out how the attacks have affected preschoolers and kindergartners. Ellen Devoe, PhD, a professor at New York's Columbia University, leads the research. "We definitely know that many of the younger kids were affected," she says. The study won't be completed for several weeks, but she says she expects results similar to those of the New York City public schools study.

Devoe says children living near Ground Zero seem to have had it worst, but it seems the experience was less traumatic for kids uptown. That would stand to reason. "As a rule, physical proximity is the most powerful predictor of emotional injury or traumatization," says Steve Brock, PhD, spokesman for the National Association of School Psychologists. The closer the kids were to the towers, the more horror they were likely to have witnessed firsthand. What's more, "One of the things that makes events more or less traumatic is duration," he says. Families in lower Manhattan were displaced from their homes for months in some cases, and they had to live with the recovery effort going on under their windows when they returned.

"It's all impressions at this point," Devoe says, but she has seen a wide range of reactions among children in the city. "I think that probably bodes well for kids in the rest of the country."

Kids Impressionable

Results from the New York City schools study also show a greater impact on children who had a loved one injured or killed that day. Even those who had loved ones escape unharmed from the site were more likely to have PTSD. Many of the people at the World Trade Center that morning were from out of town, so children in those families may have suffered more trauma. Nevertheless, for the millions of kids across the nation whose only contact was via the media, the way they cope may be determined by how the adults closest to them are getting on. "Young children are especially sensitive to stress in their caregivers," Devoe says.

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