Pre-attack symptomatology and temperament as predictors of children's responses to the September 11 terrorist attacks


Liliana Lengua, University of Washington, Department of Psychology, Box 351525, Seattle, WA, 98195, USA; Email:


Background:  The aims of this study were to assess the psychological response of children following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, DC and to examine prospective predictors of children's post-attack responses.

Method:  Children's responses were assessed in a community sample of children in Seattle, Washington, participating in an ongoing study. Symptomatology and temperament assessed prior to the attacks were examined as prospective predictors of post-attack post-traumatic stress (PTS), anxiety, depression and externalizing problems.

Results:  Children demonstrated PTS symptoms and worries at levels comparable to those in children directly experiencing disasters, with 77% of children reporting being worried, 68% being upset by reminders, and 39% having upsetting thoughts. The most common PTS symptom cluster was re-experiencing, and 8% of children met criteria consistent with PTSD. African-American children reported more avoidant PTS symptoms and being more upset by the attacks than European-American children. Girls reported being more upset than boys. Prior internalizing, externalizing, social competence and self-esteem were related to post-attack PTS; and child inhibitory control, assessed prior to the 9/11 attacks, demonstrated a trend towards an association with post-attack PTS symptoms controlling for prior levels of symptomatology. PTS predicted child-report anxiety and conduct problem symptoms at follow-up, approximately 6 months after 9/11.

Conclusions:  Children experiencing a major disaster at a distance or indirectly through media exposure demonstrated worries and PTS symptoms suggesting that communities need to attend to children's mental health needs in response to national or regional disasters. Pre-disaster symptomatology or low self-regulation may render children more vulnerable in response to a disaster, and immediate post-disaster responses predict subsequent symptomatology. These variables might be used in the identification of children in need of intervention.