Children and 9/11: Art Helping Kids Heal

Lara Suziedelis Bogle
for National Geographic News
September 10, 2002
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At the one-year anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, two organizations that help children cope with trauma are presenting art made by young people in the days and months after the tragedy.

Going on display this week in New York City is "The Day Our World Changed: Children's Art of 9/11," a joint project of New York University's Child Study Center and the Museum of the City of New York. Also this week, the Psychological Trauma Center, an affiliate of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, is presenting an exhibit of artwork by area schoolchildren, "9-11–Through the Eyes of Children."

The artworks are a testament to the fear, anger, resilience, courage, and hope of the child artists, many of whom witnessed the violent events firsthand.

Roxy Szeftel, director of child psychiatry at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, said drawing and painting helps young people convey complex feelings because "kids have a natural way of expressing themselves through play."

Expressing appropriate feelings is difficult for everyone, and more so for children because they usually have had less experience with tragedy and other bad experiences, Szeftel explained.

Encouraging children to draw, and then gently asking them questions about their art, sometimes brings out feelings they have been unable or reluctant to put into words.

"What we find is that children tend to draw the part of the trauma they don't understand—the part they're 'stuck' on," said Suzanne Silverstein, president and co-founder of the Psychological Trauma Center at Cedars-Sinai. "Like adults, sometimes what they're saying is not what they're feeling. When they draw, they put it all out on paper."

Different Ways of Coping

Silverstein, a registered art therapist, has been working with kids in the Los Angeles area since 1994, after several disasters—fires and a major earthquake—ravaged Southern California. She and her colleagues visited schools to help kids manage their fear and anxiety.

The program was later expanded to address students' response to other traumas many of them face regularly, such as domestic violence and drug-related shootings.

When Silverstein and her colleagues went to the schools to draw and talk with the kids, the drawings offered important clues to specific worries and concerns.

Hispanic children, Silverstein found, drew more pictures of people jumping out of buildings than their non-Hispanic classmates. Later, she learned from a Hispanic colleague that while English-speaking stations in Los Angeles stopped showing footage of people jumping from the World Trade Center towers early in their TV coverage, Spanish-language channels aired it for much longer periods.

Some children from other countries were concerned that they would be discriminated against as terrorists themselves. Others who had come to the United States to escape war and persecution in their homelands suddenly found themselves experiencing similar fears in their new country.

Silverstein and other experts said that students already under stress before September 11 from other problems, such as emotional difficulties or strained family relationships, were particularly at risk after the terrorist attacks. Those accustomed to violence in their daily lives may have had "more subtle reactions," she said, but actually needed even more help coping with the trauma of September 11.

The beneficial effects of art therapy sometimes seem immediate.

Some teachers have told Silverstein that children who have been struggling in school are more relaxed, happier, and easier to teach when they return to the classroom after an art therapy session.

Long-term Effects on Children

Six months after the attacks, Silverstein noticed that many of the children drew pictures that were different than those they had made earlier. One fourth grader drew himself as a giant towering over the World Trade Center buildings, crushing Osama bin Laden under his foot. Another drew a time machine with a caption suggesting he could reenact the events with a different outcome.

Szeftel said that as time passes, the emotions of children, like adults, change gradually as they become reconciled to the tragedy and its aftermath. Grief has a natural progression, she noted, and children need to be supported at every stage of the process.

The anniversary of the terrorist attacks will provoke deep emotions in people throughout the United States for many years to come, said Szeftel.

Recollecting the event is likely to spark questions by children such as what would happen if another act of terrorism occurred, she added. "September 11th," said Szeftel, "must be appropriately memorialized" by talking about feelings associated with the event and reflecting on changes since then.

The art display "9-11—Through the Eyes of Children" is at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles through Friday, September 13, 2002.

"The Day Our World Changed: Children's Art of 9/11" is on view at the Museum of the City of New York through January 19, 2003. The accompanying book of the same title is published by Abrams/MCNY/NYU Child Study Center, September 2002.

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