Emory Report
January 24, 2005
Volume 59, Number 16


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January 24, 2005
Family ways of coping with 9/11 a clue to resilience

BY Beth kurylo

The traumatic events of Sept. 11, 2001, affected everyone in different ways, and many people found that talking about their feelings helped them come to terms with fear, terrorism and a profound sense of loss. But America’s working parents struggled with how to talk to their children about what happened. Many didn’t talk about it at all.

Researchers at the Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life (MARIAL) decided to study how families reacted to 9/11 and the effect it had on their children. With baseline data on 32 families they already were studying before 9/11, the researchers were in a unique position to measure the effect of a single, stressful event, said MARIAL’s Marshall Duke, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Psychology.

“There’s been a lot of research about how families deal with stress,” Duke said. “On Sept. 11, everybody received the same stressor at the same time. That, sad to say, is a very elegant control. It is extremely rare.”
So three graduate students working with Duke and MARIAL colleague Robyn Fivush, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Psychology, revisited the families from the original study, asking each family how they dealt with 9/11.

Each family was asked to tell two stories: one about 9/11 and one about some positive family event, such as a tradition or ritual they all did together. In talking about 9/11, the families were asked where they were, how they were feeling when they learned about the terrorist attacks, and how they got in touch with each other.

The parents and their children, most of whom were about age 12, each filled out questionnaires, then the children were asked to tell two more stories, one positive (such as a family vacation or holiday) and one negative, such as the death of a pet or loved one.

“Every family was different,” said Amber Lazarus, the graduate student who works with Duke and went to the homes of about half the families. Graduate students Jennifer Bohanek and Kelly Marin, who work with Fivush, did the other home visits. Each visit lasted up to two hours.

“Some families didn’t want to talk about 9/11. Others talked about it in such a way that it brought tears to my eyes,” said Lazarus, who studies clinical psychology. “Some families were closer to 9/11 than others. In one case a flight attendant was [stranded] away from home for a couple days. In another, the father was stuck in New York when it happened.”

Some families decided to shield their children, who were 9–10 years old at the time. Others talked to them about what had happened and reassured them that they would get through it together.

“If the kids had been shielded, the parents did most of the talking during the interview,” Lazarus said. “In the families that discussed the events with their children, there was more emotion from the kids when they talked about it.”

In analyzing the data, Lazarus focused on a questionnaire in which children were asked questions about their parents and relatives. For instance, they were asked how their parents met, where they grew up, where they married, what illnesses and injuries they suffered as children, etc.

“Kids [knowing] more about their families brought the families closer together,” Lazarus said. “It was helpful to [the children] later on when they faced difficulties. They are more connected to their families.
You can tell; there is a sense of cohesion.”

Furthermore, Lazarus determined that families who are adaptive and supportive of one another can help their kids overcome such obstacles as divorce or death of a loved one. And families that tell stories, either over dinner or during a walk in the park, are more likely to have resilient children who can weather the ups and downs of everyday life.

Duke said these findings are important, because “if we can find out what contributes to resilience, we can go back to kids being harmed by disadvantaged backgrounds and help them become more resilient,”
he said.

Resilience has become a major variable in child development because it’s not possible to prevent terrible things from happening, Duke said. “We are all helpless in that regard,” he said. “So we have to be able to raise kids who can bounce back.”