Terrorist Attacks and Child Development

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Terrorist attacks are associated with a variety of adverse reactions in children and adolescents because they increase perceptions of unpredictable and uncontrollable threats to safety. We conducted a study that investigated children’s reactions to the Boston Marathon terrorist attacks that occurred in April 2013. The attacks killed three spectators and critically injured hundreds of other bystanders. Four days after the attack, a manhunt for the perpetrators caused additional casualties and resulted in a lockdown that required residents of Boston and surrounding communities to remain indoors. The public transportation system, educational institutions, local government offices, and most businesses were closed. Although direct exposure to the attack was limited to spectators at the finish line of the marathon, hundreds of thousands of Boston residents watched the manhunt unfold on television. This kind of indirect exposure to terrorist attacks has been shown to increase risk for posttraumatic stress symptoms in children and adolescents. We were interested in identifying factors that placed children at greater risk for developing posttraumatic stress symptoms. Prior to the attack, we had collected information about emotional and physiological reactivity to stressors as well as brain structure and function from adolescents who had previously participated in research studies conducted by our lab. We asked these individuals to complete a survey that included questions about exposure to the attacks, posttraumatic stress, psychological distress, and coping following the attacks. We are now examining a wide variety of characteristics that might place adolescents at risk for posttraumatic stress symptoms and psychological distress following terrorist attacks. We hope that this research will inform the development and targeting of interventions to help children and families adaptively cope with future terrorist attacks.
Daniel Busso, M.A., Andrea Duys, B.A., Jennifer Green, PhD, Sonia Alves, B.A., Marcus Way, B.A., Margaret Sheridan, Phd
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