Effects of Terrorist Attacks on Students with Emotional Problems and Behavioral Disorders

By Squires, Sandra K. | Communication Disorders Quarterly, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview
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Effects of Terrorist Attacks on Students with Emotional Problems and Behavioral Disorders

Squires, Sandra K., Communication Disorders Quarterly

This article discusses the effects of the terrorist attacks on children and youth with emotional and behavioral disorders. These children may be adversely affected in a number of ways: inattentiveness, increased restlessness, crying, sleeplessness, use of profanity, and even inappropriate laughter. Several suggestions are offered to support students with emotional and behavioral problems through this stressful time.


In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11 on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the media first addressed the most basic elements of the tragedy--the number of missing and known dead, the stories of people's escapes, the heroism of rescue workers, and the human interest stories of survivors. News of the tragedy was everywhere--on the news, on talk shows, on the radio, and in the newspapers. It even has become a part of our malls, community events, and television programming where people were raising money for the survivors. For weeks, it has become our national obsession to talk of September 11, 2001.

The next phase of news coverage has been about the emotional and economic toll on people who have survived. Rescue workers have been referred for counseling because of what they have witnessed. Grief counselors are helping surviving family members and friends. The news has been filled with information on terrorists, bombings, and retaliation. About a month after the September 11 attacks, the coverage turned to bioterrorism with the discovery of anthrax-laced letters.

The events and continued reporting have affected all of us, even young children. Children and youth have watched television reports of terrorist activities. They have overheard conversations and watched the reactions of the adults in their lives. The continued news coverage and talk of war have become a part of the fabric of our lives. The verbal and visual messages have confused and upset routines and the expectation of safety in our country. Children feel vulnerable, whether connected with victims or not. These things have all happened for children with normal coping skills. For children with emotional and behavioral problems, these problems are aggravated.

Adults and peers are often confused by the behavior of children and youth with emotional and behavioral problems. These children may respond inappropriately in social situations, and they frequently will lack the ability to observe and use social cues. They may act immaturely or exhibit extreme reactions to events, such as overreaction or an apparent lack of concern about others. The terrorist attacks have created a need to help children learn expected social responses to stressful situations.

An expected reaction to fearful situations is heightened anxiety and concern for personal safety. In adults the increased stress might lead to forgetfulness, general nervousness, irritability, sleeplessness, nightmares, and increased worry. Those same characteristics are seen in children, but they might manifest themselves differently. For example, in children, depression often means increased movement, increased signs of restlessness and inattentiveness, crying for no apparent reason, and withdrawal from others (including elective mutism as a remote possibility).

These events could trigger episodes of self-destructive behavior or a diagnosis of a mental condition. For example Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD; American Psychiatric Association, 1994) is a frequently mentioned mental illness found in survivors of war, trauma, or abuse. PTSD has been mentioned lately as occurring among survivors and rescue workers, but it can also occur in children and in people who observe war, trauma, or abuse. The symptoms are similar to those mentioned above.

Often children with emotional and behavioral disorders lack the vocabulary to describe how they are feeling.

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