Kids Who Lost Parent in 9/11 Attacks Still Suffer

Among young children, separation anxiety and withdrawal was common, study finds

SATURDAY, May 10, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- Many young children who lost a parent in the Sept. 11 terror attacks showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, new research reports.

"Children whose parents were exposed to the trauma of 9/11 did have stress-related behaviors," says study author Dr. Michael C. Thomasgard.

After breaking those studied into two groups -- kids aged 0 to 3 and those aged 3 to 6 -- the researchers found roughly half of the youngsters suffered some form of trauma a year later.

In the youngest group, 25 percent displayed separation anxiety and 17 percent exhibited hypervigilance or withdrawal, while in the older group 15 percent showed separation anxiety, 22 percent displayed hypervigilance and another 10 percent had withdrawal symptoms.

The surviving parents also had their problems, including difficulty separating from their children, says Thomasgard, who presented his findings this week at the Pediatric Academic Societies' annual meeting in Seattle.

Also, many of those providing psychological care to the children at the Family Assistance Center at Pier 94 in New York City continued to report high rates of stress a year after the attacks. These caregivers felt the need to recount their experiences and many continued to have trouble sleeping, Thomasgard says.

In September 2002, Thomasgard, an associate professor of pediatrics at Columbus Children's Hospital in Ohio, and a colleague mailed questionnaires to 93 of the caregivers from the Family Assistance Center. They weren't allowed to interview the children or their parents directly at the time of the tragedy, so they questioned caregivers about the children and their parents.

"We know that young children whose parents die are at a higher risk for problems later in life, especially if they had any preexisting emotional difficulties," Thomasgard says.

Parents also need help in knowing how to ensure their child feels safe and secure at time when their security has been threatened, Thomasgard says. In addition, there is a need to debrief care workers to deal with their continued feelings of stress.

There is limited data on children's response to terrorism, so it is difficult to tell what is normal and what isn't, Thomasgard says. "We need studies to determine how these kind of events affect the child's long-term development," he adds.

David Fassler, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont in Burlington has written widely on stress in children, and he says this study is consistent with recent clinical experience.

"Many children showed increased signs of stress and anxiety in months following the events of 9/11. While the experience was traumatic for the country as a whole, the emotional repercussions were particularly acute in the New York area, Washington, D.C., and western Pennsylvania," he adds.

Fassler points out that levels of stress have been further exacerbated by the first anniversary of 9/11, the sniper shootings, the space shuttle tragedy and the war in Iraq.

"We know that very young children are quite sensitive to changes in the stability and predictability of their environment and surroundings, which would include disruptions to their normal routine or alterations in the emotional state or responsiveness of parents or other caregivers. For this reason, it's not surprising that they would demonstrate a range of reactions including hypervigilance, separation anxiety and difficulty sleeping," Fassler notes.

However, this study is part of an encouraging trend, where more attention is being focused on the effects of stress on very young children, he adds: "In a practical sense, the results may ultimately help us design and develop more effective screening tools as well as early intervention programs and prevention initiatives."

More information

For more on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), see the National Center for PTSD or the National Institute of Mental Health.

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