This report describes a pilot study of survivors of the September 11, 2001 World Trade Center (New York USA) attacks who reported their own psychosocial consequences and the reactions of their children 3 years post-event.
Parents are a primary support for children following disasters, even though they face numerous challenges in addressing the physical and social consequences of an event. Parents who are directly exposed to a disaster and those who develop psychiatric disorders post-event are likely to be especially challenged and may be limited in their ability to support their children. The primary hypothesis of the current study was that children's September-11th reactions would be associated with their parents' psychiatric status. Secondary hypotheses were that the children's disaster reactions would be associated with direct exposure to the disaster in children and/or their parents, parent-child separation due to the disaster, and disaster-related school absence. Approximately 3 years after the 2001 World Trade Center attacks, 116 parents recruited from disaster-affected or disaster-related organizations were assessed, using structured diagnostic interviews. They were queried about their children's (188 youths, aged three to 17 years at the time of the attacks) posttraumatic stress symptoms and behavioral changes. Almost one-half of the parents had a post-disaster psychiatric disorder, including major depression (27 percent) and disaster-related posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in 11 percent. Just over three-fourths of the children had at least one disaster-related posttraumatic stress symptom, and just over one-half experienced at least one post-disaster behavioral change. A minority of the children were reported to have increased school behavior problems or a decline in their grades. Key correlates of children's disaster-related posttraumatic stress symptoms and post-disaster behavioral changes were parent-child separation due to the disaster and parental post-disaster psychiatric disorders. The study advises that because parents provide primary caretaking and support for children post-disaster, addressing the needs of parents is critical to their ability to assist their children. Reducing parents' symptoms should increase their emotional availability and enhance their ability to address the needs of their children. Given the challenges in providing disaster interventions directly to children, especially when resources are limited, addressing parent psychopathology and distress (even in the absence of focusing on children's symptoms) may benefit children. (publisher abstract modified)