By Tovah P. Klein, PhD
Director, Barnard Center for Toddler Development
My recollections of 9/11 combine the personal and professional. Prior to this day, my interests centered around the influences of parents on young children’s development. On 9/11, I had to close the Toddler Center and arrange for parents and toddlers, college students and staff members to get home safely. I desperately wanted to return to my own young children. In the days after the World Trade Center disaster, I worried about young children in New York City and my work focus shifted. How were they responding to this horrific and unprecedented event? What did they experience? Within a week, I teamed with a colleague at Columbia University to ask these questions and see how we could lend support to the young children and parents near the disaster site. The NYC Young Children’s Project began six weeks later as a series of focus groups with parents of children under age 5 who had directly witnessed the disaster. We asked about their own and their young children’s experiences that day and how their children were doing since then. Parents reported that there had been much concern about their older but not younger children, and eagerly participated.
In spring, 2002, we received a National Institute of Mental Health grant to study the impact of 9/11 on young children. Nearly 200 families participated in the study, consisting of extensive interviews with parents and videotaped play–based interviews with children. We have learned a lot from the families. In contrast to what many believe, young children were deeply affected, in part related to their level of direct exposure and parents’ stress. Children experienced chronic sleep disruptions, fearful reactions, new fears, and increased clinginess and separation anxiety. Children knew much more than parents thought they did. Parents reported their own fears for their children’s futures.
Even with their foundations shaken, children can get up again. In recent work analyzing videotapes of the children talking about the events nine to 12 months after the disaster, children demonstrate the ability to create safety through play. They build safe buildings and safe parks where no one can get hurt; they speak of trampolines catching people who jumped. The findings underscore the critical need not to overlook the vulnerability of the youngest children. Providing appropriate interventions and supports to the youngest children and their families following a disaster is essential. The youngest ones were impacted by the WTC disaster, yet, they are also capable of recovering a sense of safety.
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