Post-Traumatic Stress Can Affect Children Not Directly Involved

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March 3, 2000 (New York) -- The rise in child violence has researchers worried, and it's not just because of the damage these events do to those directly involved. New research into how children in Oklahoma City have fared since the 1995 bombing there found that children not directly involved in the tragedy, but who knew someone killed in the bombing, were at risk of developing post-traumatic stress syndrome.

One of the more interesting findings of the study, which looked at 27 children with friends or acquaintances who died in the bombing, was that these kids watched much more bombing-related television coverage than other children, one of the study's authors says. The findings appear in the March issue of Psychiatric Services.

"Even though the children were not right there live in the action, coverage of the bombing went on nonstop for days and was shown in many schools in Oklahoma City," co-author Robin H. Gurwitch, PhD, tells WebMD. "The constant replay of how this event happened made these children live this event again and again." Gurwitch is a psychologist and associate professor of pediatrics at University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.


The study did not find a significant correlation between television exposure and post-traumatic stress symptoms, but the authors note that other studies have linked exposure to disaster-related media coverage with such symptoms.

According to Gurwitch, children in this small pilot study who had friends or acquaintances killed in the bombing reported more post-traumatic stress symptoms than others. "They had sleep problems, nightmares, difficulty concentrating, worries about safety and their families," she says.

Gurwitch says that research into children affected by violent tragedies, including events like this week's Flint, Mich., shooting of a 6-year-old by another child, has outpaced the study of what these events do to children, especially those only remotely involved. Even so, she says, teachers, doctors, and parents should take a hard look at how these events affect children who hear about them or who know people hurt in them.

"Parents should be attentive to what children are watching on television and see how their kids are processing it," says Gurwitch. "Are they watching this by themselves or are they watching TV with someone? Did they have a chance to talk to anyone about disturbing content?" These are strategies that might help prevent long-term consequences, she says.


While researchers continue to study the ramifications of these events on children, Gurwitch recommends that parents, teachers, and health providers look at children who did not directly experience the tragedy, a group usually thought to be at little risk for psychological trouble. Child psychology services should be broadened so that these children can be assessed, she says, as their parents may not realize how the event is affecting them.

There is been a rich body of literature on how adults do after tragedies of this nature, but the study of children has lagged behind, at least until recently.

Glen Davis, MD, tells WebMD that children may respond differently than adults to such tragic events, but he doesn't think there are enough data yet to confirm this. Davis, who reviewed the study for WebMD, is a psychiatrist and vice president of academic affairs at Henry Ford Health System in Detroit who has been involved in a study of post-traumatic stress in adults. Although he has not studied children, he says that adults not directly involved in such events tend to be much less affected, and tend not to develop post-traumatic stress.

But in the wake of several high-profile violent tragedies involving children, Gurwitch says, there is hardly a state in the country that is not looking at how to deal with these events.

Vital Information:

  • Researchers report that children can suffer post-traumatic stress after a disaster like the Oklahoma City bombing even if they were not directly involved. They note that care should also be considered for these children, since losing friends or acquaintances is enough to produce this syndrome.
  • Observers note that other research suggests that adults don't seem to develop this type of post-traumatic stress. The researchers add that television may be a contributor, as children relive the trauma over and over through the constant coverage that follows such tragedies.
  • More study on treatment is needed, but for now, the researchers say, parents should be aware of what their kids watch on television, how they respond to it, and whether anyone is available to discuss what may be disturbing to these young viewers.
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