Families and communities effectively helped children cope with their fears after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001--and children are still experiencing the positive effects of the increased attention they received, finds a three-part study by the Sesame Workshop, a nonprofit educational organization that uses research to develop enriching television programs, including "Sesame Street."

In fact, workshop researchers found that children reported more fears and anxiety about violence in June 2000 than right after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, suggesting that parents and other adults may not do as well at talking with children about their everyday worries. Indeed, children in the study pointed to television violence and bullying as the sources of their worries more often than terrorism and war. And youngsters said they want adults to discuss such worries with them in the way they did after Sept. 11--by giving them increased attention and reassurance.

"One of the key lessons is that if we as grown-ups ask kids, they will tell us what they're doing, what they need and even how we might be able to help them," said Sesame Workshop President and CEO Gary E. Knell at the study's release on Feb. 25 at the National Press Club in Washington.

Among those participating on an expert panel at the release were psychologists Albert Roberts, PhD, chair of Howard University's psychology department, Nora Alarifi Pharaon, EdD, senior consulting psychologist at the Arab-American Family Support Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Ellen Wartella, PhD, dean of The University of Texas at Austin's College of Communication and a Sesame Workshop board member.

Listening to children

To gauge children's feelings, Sesame Workshop used a unique research method--they asked more than 100 6- to 11-year-old children to fill out an "All About Me" booklet without help from an adult. Children responded to such questions as "my fears and worries" and "someone you would like to be for one day" by writing essays and drawing or pasting cut-out pictures in the book. Children 9 to 11 years old also completed a "Kid's View" booklet, for which they were given disposable cameras to take photos of places and people in their lives, such as "the wise one" and "the safe place."

Researchers collected data from ethnically diverse children in 15 television markets across the country in three phases: June 2000, two to four weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and May and June of 2002. The third phase also included 54 Arab-American children. They then analyzed children's responses and presented their findings to a panel of 12- and 13-year-olds this January to see how the adolescents interpreted the findings.

The unique research design, said Roberts, allowed the study to produce some useful insights that a quantitative study may have missed. For example, Arab-American children mentioned anxieties about violence as often as the other children--but they were more likely to refer to Sept. 11, 2001 in response to questions about what made them ashamed. Other children more often referred to the attacks when talking about fears or worries.

The study also found qualitative differences in how children talked about their immediate and extended families. They frequently named their parents, aunts and uncles, and grandparents as heroes, and the number of children who identified a grandparent as "the wise one" doubled from 2001 to 2002.

Three times as many children identified their home as the "safe place" in 2002 as in the fall of 2001. Moreover, there was a difference in how they talked about their homes, said Sesame Workshop Vice President of Research Strategy Susan Royer: "It wasn't just 'It's my house,' it was 'It's my family in the house.'"

Everyday worries

However, the study's most startling findings aren't related to Sept. 11, said Royer.

"Most importantly, when things are 'normal,' children seem to feel most alone and helpless in their fear, and unlike Code Orange times, parents can be clueless about kids' anxiety, and kids know that," she explained.

Indeed, three adolescents who attended the study's release said their parents often aren't aware when they're scared or worried. Adults, they said, should talk with children about scary events--even when their children say they aren't worried by them. Often, they explained, children won't reveal their worries because they don't want to burden their parents.

Sesame Workshop plans to use the study's results to develop positive television programs for 6- to 11-year-olds.