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Children can suffer emotional wounds in a disaster

Post-traumatic stress symptoms can go unnoticed, and kids' resilience varies

12:53pm, December 1, 2014
girl standing in wreckage of Hurricane Katrina

EMOTIONAL WOUNDS  Many children, like this young girl in Gulfport, Miss., lost a great deal during Hurricane Katrina. Some recovered more quickly than others.

On April 19, 1995, an unemployed security guard with an antigovernment vendetta detonated more than two tons of nitrogen fertilizer mixed with fuel at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. A photographer captured a firefighter emerging from the rubble, his thick arms cradling the broken body of an infant, one of 19 babies and toddlers who lost their lives at the building’s day care center. The image became the emblem of the nation’s horror, recording the bomb’s visible toll on the young.

But terror attacks and natural disasters also take a more subtle toll on children: emotional scars that researchers are still working to understand. At the time of the bombing, most mental health experts assumed that sudden tragedy is a psychological lightning strike, a quick shock that dims over time. Few researchers had interviewed children to learn otherwise.

Scientists have now pieced together a story that is much more complex.

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