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Section 2
Children Exposed to Terrorism

Question 2 | Test | Table of Contents

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In the last section, we discussed the impact of September 11, 2001 on children, and a technique for reducing post traumatic stress as a result of media exposure.

In this section, we will discuss four aspects of the long-term effects of terrorism on children.  The four aspects we will discuss are: the effects on preschool children, on middle and high school students, on elementary students, and on middle school students in communities distant from the terrorist event. 

Until the destruction if the World Trade Center, the April 19, 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal building in Oklahoma City was the largest act of terrorism on American soil.  This event brought about one of the first investigations of how terrorism affects children who live in a country relatively free from large-scale acts of violence. Not only were many children directly impacted by the bombing, but the extensive media coverage given this unprecedented event exposed the nation to continuous imagery of the aftermath.

Because an extensive mental health response was involved in the immediate response to the Oklahoma City bombing, mental health professionals were able to closely observe children affected by the terrorist event, and from the data collected, contribute one of the most useful sources of information available regarding the long term effects of terrorism on children.

4 Aspects of the Long-Term Effects of Terrorism on Children

♦ Aspect #1 - Effects on Preschool Children
The first aspect of the long term effects of terrorism on children is the effects on preschool children.  As you know, the preschool children in the YMCA daycare next to the Federal Building were directly affected by the bombing.  Although none of these children were critically injured, most sustained multiple cuts and bruises from falling debris. 

Six months after the bombing, Gurwitch and his colleagues evaluated these children for symptoms of post-traumatic stress.  The evaluations found that even infants and very young toddlers displayed many PTS symptoms.  Extensive posttraumatic play and peer discussion about the events occurred.  Across the age range, researchers noted hyperarousal and increased startle responses. 

Additionally, disturbances in functioning such as sleep problems, increased irritability, and regressive behaviors such as a return to a pacifier or bottle were observed.  Rather than avoiding activities or people that reminded them of the bomb, infants and preschoolers welcomed opportunities to interact with staff and first responders, as well as chances to play games reminiscent of the bombing.  However, researchers noted that restricted range of affect, and a sense of a foreshortened future, both common symptoms of PTS, were relatively absent from the young children.

In a connected study, Gurwitch and his colleagues interviewed the parents of these same children.  The researchers observed that although the parents were aware of the symptoms of PTS, they tended to underreport the symptoms in their children.

♦ Aspect #2 - Effects on Middle School & High School Students
The second aspect of the long term effects of terrorism on children is the effects on middle school and high school students.  The students observed were students in Oklahoma City, many of whom directly felt the effects of the explosion.  A large number of these children knew someone killed or injured in the blast. 

Seven weeks after the bombing, researchers observed that 62.8% of these children still had significant concerns about their safety or the safety of their families.  Close to 15% of the middle and high school children observed reported not feeling safe "at all."  As expected, when bereaved and nonbereaved children in this group were compared, those who had suffered a loss were far more likely to still feel concerns for their safety.  Symptoms of post traumatic stress were more frequently reported by girls than boys, and more frequently reported by children who had suffered a personal loss. 

An unexpected finding was that the greatest number of PTS symptoms were observed in children who had a sibling injured or killed.  Children who had a sibling injured or killed reported even more symptoms of PTS than those who had a parent injured or killed.

♦ Aspect #3 - Effects on Elementary School Students
In addition to the effects on preschoolers and middle school or high school students, a third aspect of the long term effects of terrorism on children is the effects on elementary school students.  Researchers found that 8 to 10 months after the bombing of the federal building, nearly 5% of the elementary school children in the Oklahoma City Public School system reported symptoms of post traumatic stress. 

Nearly one third of the children still felt significant concern for the safety of their family members, and one fifth had difficulty calming down after a reminder about the bombings.  Another significant finding by researchers was that two thirds of the children reported distressing feelings towards the perpetrators of the attacks, especially as the media coverage of the events turned to criminal trials.

♦ Aspect #4 - Middle School Students in Distant Communities
A fourth aspect regarding the long term effects of terrorism on children concerns middle school children living in a community 100 miles from Oklahoma City.  These children had no direct physical or interpersonal exposure to the bombing. In these children, media exposure and indirect interpersonal exposure were significant predictors of post traumatic stress symptomatology.  Even two years after the bombing, twenty percent of the children surveyed reported symptoms related to the bombing that impaired their functioning at home or at school. 

Think of a child you are currently treating for symptoms of post traumatic stress as a result of indirect exposure to a terrorist-related incident.  How is his or her experience similar to that of the middle school children who lived 100 miles away from the Oklahoma City bombings?

In this section, we have discussed four aspects of the long-term effects of terrorism on children.  The four aspects we discussed are: the effects on preschool children, on middle and high school students, on elementary students, and on middle school students in communities distant from the terrorist event.

In the next section, we will discuss five questions children frequently ask about safety and security.  These five questions are, will bombs fall on my house, who will take care of me if my parents get killed, why don’t I feel safe, will terrorists hurt me, and do adults worry about war too.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Barnett, E. R., Jankowski, M. K., & Trepman, A. Z. (2019). State-wide implementation and clinical outcomes associated with evidence-based psychotherapies for traumatized youth. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 11(7), 775–783.

Comer, J. S., Furr, J. M., Beidas, R. S., Weiner, C. L., & Kendall, P. C. (2008). Children and terrorism-related news: Training parents in coping and media literacy. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 76(4), 568–578.

Gilkey, S. (2010). Review of Treating traumatized children: Risk, resilience and recovery [Review of the book Treating traumatized children: Risk, resilience and recovery, by D. Brom, R. Pat-Horenczyk & J. D. Ford, Eds.]. Traumatology, 16(1), 66–67.

Grolnick, W. S., Schonfeld, D. J., Schreiber, M., Cohen, J., Cole, V., Jaycox, L., Lochman, J., Pfefferbaum, B., Ruggiero, K., Wells, K., Wong, M., & Zatzick, D. (2018). Improving adjustment and resilience in children following a disaster: Addressing research challenges. American Psychologist, 73(3), 215–229.

Hansel, T., Osofsky, H., Speier, A., & Osofsky, J. (2019). Postdisaster recovery and resilience: The mediating influences of mental health and environmental quality of life. Traumatology. Advance online publication. 

Scrimin, S., Moscardino, U., Capello, F., Aloè, G., & Axia, G. (2009). Recognition of facial expressions of mixed emotions in school-age children exposed to terrorism. Developmental Psychology, 45(5), 1341–1352.

What two symptoms of post traumatic stress were absent in infants and preschoolers affected by the Oklahoma City bombing? To select and enter your answer go to Test.

Section 3
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