Editor's note: As we near the two-year anniversary of the tragic events of September 11, 2001, more attention is being focused on the long-term emotional effects of the terrorist acts that occurred that day. One segment of the population that may have been particularly vulnerable but often over-looked is very young children. A new study's preliminary findings show that while the majority of 3- to 5-year-olds are doing well, another group shows substantial symptoms.
For the first time, a group of researchers from Columbia University and Barnard College are studying the impact that the September 11 terrorist attacks had on the psychological well being of children who were 5 and under in the fall of 2001. “This is the only study focused on very young children,” says Tovah Klein, Ph.D., of the Barnard College Department of Psychology, who is conducting the study with Ellen DeVoe, Ph.D., of Columbia University School of Social Work. The study looks at how parents and children have adapted in the period following the attacks, Dr. Klein says. The young subjects were recruited from preschools and daycare centers either near Ground Zero or in areas of Brooklyn where the attacks could be seen. The majority of the children witnessed either the planes going into the buildings or the towers collapsing. In some families both parent and child witnessed the events, and in other families only one or the other were witness. Part of the research involved interviews with 85 children between the ages of 3 and 5, following a very specific protocol. “We first determined if they knew about the World Trade Center, then we had them draw pictures of their experience that day. It was very clear that they knew what was going on,” Dr. Klein says. While the findings are still preliminary, with final results not expected to be published until early next year, Dr. Klein says: “The majority of kids are really doing well, but there is a group showing substantial symptoms.” These include sleep issues such as nightmares or frequent waking, separation issues and clinginess, increased irritability and crying, and asking a lot of questions related to the attacks. According to Dr. Klein, the research seems to suggest that the more events a child was exposed to on that day will increase his risk for symptoms of distress. But, she points out that not all the children are showing after-effects. “There is a big group with either no symptoms or very few symptoms.” “The message is not all negative,” Dr. Klein emphasizes. “Young kids have all kinds of ways of creating safety, and they have their own ways of stating what happened.” She cites an example of one little girl who, when explaining what happened that day, made a building out of blocks and said, "This is my apartment. It has a big sign that says 'No planes allowed’." Parents also helped to create safety by creating normalcy, according to Dr. Klein. “There are lots of stories of kids cooperating, whether it was walking several miles uptown or going in their stroller covered in rags to protect them from the dust. Once they got to their destination, parents tried to put the routine back in the day. Having some sense of routine seems to be helpful.” The support between parent and child seems to work both ways. Dr. Klein says a lot of parents tell her that because of their children they have been able to get up and out and move on with their lives. Now, two years later, Dr. Klein has some parents telling her that while their child seemed OK immediately following the attacks, they are now seeing symptoms for the first time. “In Oklahoma City we saw a peak in symptoms [of post traumatic stress disorder] after 18 months. Anniversaries are very difficult. Last year we advised some families to leave town on the anniversary. The rebuilding is helpful for a lot of families.” In general, Dr. Klein advises parents of young children to listen to their child, looking for cues. If the child seems worried, bring up the subject. “Be very open and honest in a developmentally appropriate way,” she urges. The research was conducted with 180 parents of 240 children. The National Institute of Mental Health provided funding for the project.