American Kids After 9/11
American Kids After 9/11
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
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."
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.
"You can make a relatively stressful event into a crisis if
you treat it as such," Brock says. "What caregivers need to do is take
their lead from the kids they're caring for." If a child seems unusually
affected by what happened, special counseling may be helpful. But if the
child's reaction has been sanguine, extra attention may make things worse.