Responses to Terrorism
by: Lawrence B. Rosenfeld
Department of Communication Studies
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
September 14, 2001
When helping children manage the effects of a disaster, such as the acts of
terrorism that occurred on September 11, it is important to keep a few things
- In a disaster setting,
the vast majority of personsboth children and adultsfunctioned
well prior to the disaster and are capable of doing so again, given temporary
assistance and support. Studies of the aftermath of various types of disasters,
such as hurricanes and acts of terrorism, indicate that most people are
relatively okay within a week or so, that some may need a few weeks to "bounce
back," and that approximately only 5% do not function well again without
some type of therapeutic intervention. It is not useful to draw conclusions
about peoplesuch as, "theyre falling apart," and "theyre
disintegrating"based solely on seeing them in highly stressful
circumstances: their responses may well be normal responses to stress.
All of usadults and especially childrenare much more resilient
than we get credit for.
- Even though we can make
predictions about how children of different ages are likely to respond
to a disaster, there will be great variations among them. Like any prediction,
it applies to the group, but may or may not apply to the individual.
Three important considerations
when predicting how children will respond to the terrorist attacks that
the United States suffered are: (1) physical proximity to the disaster,
(2) psychological proximity the disaster, and (2) the childs age.
The first two concerns relate to "circles of vulnerability," that
is, the closer to the center circle the child is, the more likely that
she or he will suffer the effects of the disaster.
Four Circles of Physical
- Children in the first,
most inner, circle are victimsthey experienced direct exposure
to the disaster and are the most vulnerable.
- Children in the second
circle are witnesses who had a near miss experience. Children in this
circle are less vulnerable than those in the first circle, but are still
- Children in the third
circle are those within hearing, feeling, smelling, etc. of the disaster,
but who did not witness it. They are less vulnerable than those children
in either of the other two circles.
- Children in the fourth
circle are outside the disaster area, in distant neighborhoods and communitiespotentially
the whole nation. Typically, these children are least vulnerable. It
is difficult to assess, however, what circle children who witness events
on television, hear about them on radio, or read about them in newspapers
occupy. While it seems logical to place those children in this fourth
circle, children who are quite sensitive are more likely to occupy one
of the other circles, that is, be more vulnerable to the disaster.
Three Circles of
- Children in the first,
most inner, circle are those socially close to people who experienced
the disaster, such as members of their family, friends, and others with
whom they have a close personal relationship. These children are the
- Children in the second
circle are those who know the victims as acquaintances or as friends
not considered "close." These children are less vulnerable
than those in the first circle, but they are still quite vulnerable.
- Children in the third
circle are those who identify with the victims: they may see themselves
as similar to the victims in age, or perhaps identify as citizens of
America. Although less vulnerable than children in the other two circles,
these children are still vulnerable to the effects of the disaster.
with Different Ages
Children Birth to 5
To the extent that the
young childs world is no longer predictable and stable, and adults
are no longer dependable, she or he will suffer a variety of emotional
consequences. The extent to which the family is disruptedwhich includes
the degree to which the parents are anxious or excessively distraughtis
a good predictor of how upset the child will be. Young children do not
have the cognitive ability to understand clearly what is happening to them:
the usual predictable routines of their lives are disrupted, and they cannot
make sense of it. In addition, the people they turn to for explanations
and protection may not be available at all if they have been injured or
killed, or may be so emotionally upset themselves that they cannot comfort
the child adequately.
Very young children may
become irritable, cry or whimper more than usual, or want to be cuddled
more. They may regress to earlier behaviors, such as, bedwetting, thumbsucking,
fear of the dark, fear of being alone. They may ask for assistance with
activities already mastered, such as, tying their shoes, feeding, and dressing.
Also, anxiety or fear may show up as an inability to sleep or an inability
to sleep without a light, night terrors, irritability, aggressiveness,
sadness, speech difficulties, and eating problems.
These symptoms may appear
immediately or after several days; regardless, usually they are brief and
soon disappear. If they persist, a serious problem may be developing, and
professional help should be sought.
Children in this age group
have an increasing awareness of the danger around them, both to themselves
("Can a terrorist come to our home?") and their family ("Will
a bomb kill Daddy?"). Searching for a sense of order and rule, they
experience chaos and unpredictability. Although most children in this age
range have the cognitive ability to understand natural and technological
disasters, for most their cognitive ability is not developed sufficiently
to understand disasters of human design, such as terrorism. Their imaginations
are sufficiently developed, however, to suffer from imaginary fears unrelated
to the disaster.
The predominant reactions
are fear and anxiety. Regressive behaviors may appear, such as bedwetting,
nightmares, fear of sleeping alone, or fear of darkness. Somatic complaints,
such as headaches, stomach aches, and nausea are likely, as are irritability
In addition, problems may
be associated with going to school, such as refusing to go, interactions
in school, such as fighting or withdrawing, and academics, such as losing
concentration or performing poorly.
As with the younger children,
these symptoms may appear immediately or after several days and soon disappear.
If they persist for more than a few weeks, however, a serious problem may
be developing, and professional help should be sought.
Adolescence 12-19 years
Preadolescent and adolescent
children are characterized by their independence, self-motivation, and
experimentation. They have a great need to appear competent, especially
to friends and family. Disasters of human design, including terrorism,
may trigger a loss of faith in adults: the world may be perceived as dangerous
and unpredictable because the adults who are supposed to take care of things
Signs of anxiety and fear
may be both internal and external. Problems of an internal nature include
depression and sadness, thoughts of suicide, and confusion. Problems of
an external nature include withdrawal and isolation, stealing, fighting,
and a disruption in communication with friends. Problems with school work
and peer relationships may occur. Finally, somatic complaints, such as
headaches and stomachaches, may occur.
As with children in other
age groups, most of the symptoms are fleeting and may pass within several
days. If parents or teachers notice that they persist, however, they should
respond quickly. A serious problem may be developing, and professional
help should be sought.
A recent article by Greenwald
and Rubin (1999) in the journal Research on Social Work Practice"Assessment
of Posttraumatic Symptoms in Children: Development and Preliminary Validation
of Parent and Child Scales"presents a list of common symptoms
of post-traumatic stress disorder that parents may see in their children.
While the presence of one or even a small group of behaviors is not cause
for alarm, if many of them are observed, it may be prudent to seek professional
consultation. The following behaviors were validated for children between
the ages of 8 through 13.
Gets in trouble
Thinks of bad memories
Feels too guilty
Repeats the same
Clings to adults
Avoids former interests
Does not care anymore
Bossy with peers
Sad or depressed
Nightmares or bad
Feels picked on
Websites that may be of interest
The following is an excerpt
from "Coping with Terrorism," from the American Psychological
developed by Rona M. FieLDF and Joe Margolin.
What You May Experience Following
a Terrorist Attack
People who have experienced
or witnessed a terrorist attack may go into a state of acute stress reaction.
You may feel one or all of these symptoms:
- Recurring thoughts of
- Becoming afraid of everything,
not leaving the house, or isolating yourself
- Stopping usual functioning,
no longer maintaining daily routines
- Survivor guilt"Why
did I survive? I should have done something more."
- Tremendous sense of loss
- Reluctance to express
your feelings, losing a sense of control over your life
Coping with the Trauma
9. Tips for helping children
- Encourage children to
say how they are feeling about the event.
- Ask children what they
have seen, heard or experienced. Assure children that their parents are
taking care of them and will continue to help them deal with anything that
makes them feel afraid.
- Help children recognize
when they have shown courage in meeting a new scary situation and accomplished
a goal despite hardship or barriers. Instill a sense of empowerment.
- Let children know that
institutions of democracy are still in place and our government is intact.
(It can also be helpful for adults to realize this.)
- Know that it is possible
for children to experience vicariously the traumatization from the terrorist
attack (e.g. watching TV coverage, overhearing adult conversations).
The following information
is from the National Association of School Psychologists, www.nasponline.org
For Immediate Release from
the National Association of School Psychologists
Cope With Tuesdays Acts of Terrorism
Parents and Teachers
Tuesdays tragic acts
of terrorism are unprecedented in the American experience. Children, like
many people, may be confused or frightened by the news and will look to adults
for information and guidance on how to react. Parents and school personnel
can help children cope first and foremost by establishing a sense of safety
and security. As the nation learns more about what happened and why, adults
can continue to help children work through their emotions and perhaps even
use the process as a learning experience.
All Adults Should:
1. Model calm and control.
Children take their emotional cues from the significant adults in their
lives. Avoid appearing anxious or frightened.
2. Reassure children
that they are safe and so are the other important adults in their
lives. Explain that these buildings were targeted for their symbolism
and that schools, neighborhoods, and regular office buildings are not
3. Remind them that
trustworthy people are in charge. Explain that the government emergency
workers, police, fireman, doctors, and even the military are helping
people who are hurt and are working to ensure that no further tragedies
4. Let children know
that it is okay to feel upset. Explain that all feelings are okay
when a tragedy like this occurs. Let children talk about their feelings
and help put them into perspective. Even anger is okay, but children
may need help and patience from adults to assist them in expressing these
5. Observe childrens
emotional state. Depending on their age, children may not express
their concerns verbally. Changes in behavior, appetite, and sleep patterns
can also indicate a childs level of grief, anxiety or discomfort.
Children will express their emotions differently. There is no right or
wrong way to feel or express grief.
6. Tell children the
truth. Dont try to pretend the event has not occurred or that
it is not serious. Children are smart. They will be more worried if they
think you are too afraid to tell them what is happening.
7. Stick to the facts.
Dont embellish or speculate about what has happened and what might
happen. Dont dwell on the scale or scope of the tragedy, particularly
with young children.
8. Keep your explanations
developmentally appropriate. Early elementary school children
need brief, simple information that should be balanced with reassurances
that the daily structures of their lives will not change. Upper elementary
and early middle school children will be more vocal in asking questions
about whether they truly are safe and what is being done at their school.
They may need assistance separating reality from fantasy. Upper middle
school and high school students will have strong and varying opinions
about the causes of violence in schools and society. They will share
concrete suggestions about how to make school safer and how to prevent
tragedies in society. They will be more committed to doing something
to help the victims and affected community. For all children, encourage
them to verbalize their thoughts and feelings. Be a good listener!
What Parents Can Do
1. Focus on your children
over the next day or so. Tell them you love them and everything will
be okay. Try to help them understand what has happened, keeping in mind
their developmental level.
2. Make time to talk
with your children. Remember if you do not talk to your children
about this incident someone else will. Take some time and determine what
you wish to say.
3. Stay close to your
children. Your physical presence will reassure them and give you
the opportunity monitor their reaction. Many children will want actual
physical contact. Give plenty of hugs. Let them sit close to you, and
make sure to take extra time at bedtime to cuddle and to reassure them
that they are loved and safe.
4. Limit the amount
of your childs television viewing of these events. If they
must watch, watch with them for a brief time; then turn the set off.
Dont sit mesmerized re-watching the same events over and over again.
5. Maintain a "normal" routine.
To the extent possible stick to your familys normal routine for dinner,
homework, chores, bedtime, etc., but dont be inflexible. Children
may have a hard time concentrating on schoolwork or falling asleep at night.
6. Spend extra time
reading or playing quiet games with your children before bed. These
activities are calming, foster a sense of closeness and security, and
reinforce a sense of normalcy. Spend more time tucking them in. Let them
sleep with a light on if they ask for it.
7. Safeguard your childrens
physical health. Stress can take a physical toll on children as well
as adults. Make sure your children get appropriate sleep, exercise and
8. Consider praying
or thinking hopeful thoughts for the victims and their families.
It may be a good time to take your children to church or the synagogue,
write a poem, or draw a picture to help your child express their feelings
and feel that they are somehow supporting the victims and their families.
9. Find out what resources
your school has in place to help children cope. Most schools are
likely to be open and often are a good place for children to regain a
sense of normalcy. Being with their friends and teachers can help. Schools
should also have a plan for making counseling available to children and
adults who need it.
What Schools Can Do
1. Assure children that
they are safe and that schools are well prepared to take care of
all children at all times.
2. Maintain structure
and stability within the schools. It would be best, however, not
to have tests or major projects within the next few days.
3. Have a plan for the
first few days back at school. Include school psychologists, counselors
and crisis team members in planning the schools response.
4. Provide teachers
and parents with information about what to say and do for children
in school and at home.
5. Have teachers provide
information directly to their students, not during the public address
6. Have school psychologists
and counselors available to talk to student and staff who may need
or want extra support.
7. Be aware of students
who may have recently experienced a personal tragedy or a have personal
connection to victims or their families. Even a child who has been
to visit the Pentagon or the World Trade Center may feel a personal loss.
Provide these students extra support and leniency if necessary.
8. Know what community
resources are available for children who may need extra counseling.
School psychologists can be very helpful in directing families to the
right community resources.
9. Allow time for age
appropriate classroom discussion and activities. Do not expect teachers
to provide all of the answers. They should ask questions and guide the
discussion, but not dominate it. Other activities can include art and
writing projects, play acting, and physical games.
10. Be careful not to
stereotype people or countries that might be home to the terrorists.
Children can easily generalize negative statements and develop prejudice.
11. Refer children who
exhibit extreme anxiety, fear or anger to mental health counselors in
the school. Inform their parents.
12. Provide an outlet
for students desire to help. Consider making get well cards
or sending letters to the families and survivors of the tragedy, or writing
thank you letters to doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals
as well as emergency rescue workers, firefighters and police.
13. Monitor or restrict
viewing of this horrendous event as well as the aftermath.
For information on helping
children and youth with this crisis, contact NASP at (301) 657-0270 or
visit NASPs website at www.nasponline.org
NASP represents 22,000 school
psychologists and related professionals throughout the United States and
abroad. NASPs mission is to promote educationally and psychologically
healthy environments for all children and youth by implementing research-based,
effective programs that prevent problems, enhance independence and promote
optimal learning. This is accomplished through state-of-the-art research
and training, advocacy, ongoing program evaluation, and caring professional
National Association of
School Psychologists, 4340 East West Highway, Suite 402, Bethesda, MD 20814,
(301) 657-0270, Fax (301) 657-0275