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Coping as a kid

After nightmares and fear about Sept. 11, most kids are getting on with life.

By MELANIE AVE, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 3, 2002


After nightmares and fear about Sept. 11, most kids are getting on with life.

Ryan Hart was fast asleep when the country's most hated man appeared in his dreams.

"It was terrible," recalled the 8-year-old Tampa boy. "I dreamt I was fighting in the war against terrorism. I was a soldier in the war and I was in a gunfight with Osama bin Laden."

In another nightmare, according to Ryan's parents, bin Laden flew in on a jet and kidnapped the boy's 12-year-old sister.

Bin Laden, whom Ryan called a "really, really bad person," stays on the third-grader's mind even now, one year after the Sept. 11 attacks.

"How has 9/11 changed children? It depends," said Alan Steinberg, associate director of the National Center for Child Traumatic Stress in Los Angeles. "The old idea that children are resilient and this doesn't bother them, that's not true."

The closer children were to the attacks, the more intense the psychological fallout, Steinberg said. Little ones who were nearby and saw the buildings crumble or who lost loved ones suffered the most.

But the vast majority of youngsters who watched the events played and replayed on television or heard their parents' anguished discussions have moved on with their lives -- school work, birthday parties and soccer practice.

"Kids in general are very hopeful about their lives both now and in the future," said Ilene Berson, professor in the Department of Child and Family Studies at the University of South Florida. "They still want to laugh and play."

But that doesn't mean children came through completely unscathed by the attacks.

Anum Ahmed, a 15-year-old at King High in Tampa, worried for her life afterward because of backlash against some Muslims.

"A girl asked me if I was having fun and laughing," she said. "It really hurt my feelings because we were all attacked on that day."

Some kids battle lingering fears, anxiety and sleepless nights that hover just below the surface of their innocence.

It makes sense. The nation's youngest residents have been forced to deal with heavy topics like suicide bombers and Middle East politics.

"They are seeing bits of news, and they want answers," said Jaya Eeten, a third grade teacher at Perkins Elementary School in St. Petersburg. "Some come in and talk about Osama bin Laden. Some say, "Who's that?'

"When you're trying to explain it to kids, it's hard."

Psychologists say younger children were most fearful immediately after the attacks, but many had trouble putting words to their worries.

Their concerns came out as nightmares, anger or clinging to parents.

John Leanes, principal of Carwise Middle School in Palm Harbor, said he noticed more arguing and fighting among students last fall.

Eight children at the school lost friends or families, including Gina Tarrou, whose father was a flight attendant on United Airlines Flight 175, the second plane to crash into the World Trade Center.

"It really damaged their sense of security," Leanes said. "A lot of kids I talked to were like, "Oh, well, the world is coming to an end. What's the point?' "

Ten-year-old Alex Goldenberg of Tampa could barely sleep after watching a documentary last spring that showed graphic images of the World Trade Center.

"You could see little things falling," he said. "My mom and dad thought they were ashes, but they were falling people."

Last fall, fifth-grader Layla Chami, who attends Berkeley Preparatory School in Tampa, was nervous about flying in an airplane and going inside skyscrapers.

"I was scared if I went too high in a building that a plane would hit it," said Layla, 10. The brown-eyed girl said she feels more secure now.

Some parents, used to worrying about their children's safety, have seen the tables turn.

Jay and Cheryl Baker's daughters, Samantha, 11, and Rachel, 15, "freaked out" when their father was stuck in Oklahoma on business when all U.S. air travel was suspended. He eventually rented a car and drove home.

But getting accustomed to their father's frequent business trips was difficult, especially after his first flight following the attacks.

"They were crying when he left," said Mrs. Baker of Oldsmar. "They were anxious to talk to him as soon as he landed."

Ray Hansen, staff officer with the Pinellas Park Fire Department, said his youngest son, 11-year-old Clay, gained a new understanding of his dad's career.

"I don't think he ever considered the fact before that I'm in a hazardous occupation," said Hansen, a firefighter for 22 years. "He wasn't too happy with me going to work."

Like adults, many teenagers understood how Sept. 11 erased the nation's sense of security and escalated terrorism worldwide.

For some teenagers, the sense of personal invincibility vanished.

Fifteen-year-old Cortney Stanton of New Port Richey said she lives each day to its fullest.

"I spend more time with my family and friends now just in case something like that happens here and we're taken from each other," said Cortney, whose father, David Stanton, is a firefighter in Largo.

Tynell Cromartie, 15, a sophomore at Gibbs High School, said a visit to ground zero this summer drove home the enormity of the attacks.

A lot of his friends "have just brushed it off," he said. "People say, "Don't worry, it's over.' We should worry about it. I think everybody should take a trip there and see what happened. They'd get a better perspective. You can see the pain of it. The pictures. The dead flowers."

Monica Marshall, director of children's mental health for the National Mental Health Association, said one reason children are thriving despite the tragedy is because parents and teachers have continued to talk with them about it.

At most schools, children drew, wrote and talked out their feelings after the attacks.

Patrick Simon, the principal at Pleasant Grove Elementary in Inverness, vividly remembers children drawing pictures of people hanging outside the twin towers yelling "help."

His teachers, like so many others, turned the tragedy into lessons on heroes and citizenship.

"It added a new meaning to patriotism," said 13-year-old Bennett Andrews, an eighth-grader at Berkeley Prep. "I'm very proud when I see an American flag."

Children have also watched and learned as their parents resumed their normal, day-to-day lives, Marshall said.

"We know children model behavior after adults," she said. "Children are doing well because adults are doing well."

Some students even say they want to pursue careers to be like the rescue workers in New York and Washington, D.C.

Robert Ferro and his family moved to New Port Richey from Long Island several months before the attacks. The 14-year-old sophomore at J.W. Mitchell High School said the attacks deepened his desire to work for the FBI.

"I want to be able to help people," said Robert, the lanky son of a retired New York City police officer. "I want to keep this sort of thing from happening again."

Andrew Butler, 13, admits he was unsure of flying for a while and was nervous about his school's proximity to MacDill Air Force Base, where the war on terrorism is being directed. He says he still worries somewhat about trips to the mall, where suicide bombers could attack.

That said, the eighth-grader at St. John's Episcopal Day School in Tampa looks forward to the future, about becoming a professional baseball player and helping hurting families.

Like thousands of others, he will be standing along Bayshore Boulevard on Sept. 11 with his mother, Janet Butler Odioso, a volunteer with the group that organized the mass flag waving.

"You can't hide," Andrew said. "You kind of have to get on with your life."

-- Times photographer Lara Cerri and researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Melanie Ave can be reached at (813) 226-3400 or melanie@sptimes.com.

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