Anxiety over attacks causing children to conjure 'revenge fantasies'

Coping with aftermath of Sept. 11

Posted: Sunday, September 30, 2001

A few days after planes strike the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, a 3-year-old girl on Long Island begins sleepwalking and muttering.

Her parents listen to her muddled words: ''My don't like the bad people. My will hit the bad people with a hammer,'' she says.

Anger and anxiety brought on by the Sept. 11 terror attacks have put revenge on the minds of many young people, even those who've been told little about the devastation but still sense something's very wrong.

For those who know more, the revenge fantasies can get quite graphic. Nicholas Sands, a 6-year-old from Los Angeles, is still so angry that he wants to track down terrorists and ''cut off their arms and legs so they die.''

''That would be really cool,'' says Nicholas, whose father's cousin was among those killed when American Airlines Flight 11 hit the World Trade Center.

A 10-year-old boy from Swartz Creek, Mich., says he wants to ''shoot Osama bin Laden in the head with a 20-gauge shotgun and then drop him from a plane into the Pacific Ocean so he does a belly flop.''

Hearing such talk can be disconcerting to parents, and even to the children themselves. But experts say revenge fantasies are generally a normal response.

''Let's face it. Half of the adult population is walking around spouting off this kind of thing in diners and living rooms across the country,'' says James Feldman, national director of public education for KidsPeace, a nonprofit organization that deals with children in emotional crisis.

He and others say young people may be even more likely than adults to come up with revenge fantasies because they feel particularly powerless, not to mention scared and insecure. The contents of those fantasies tend to come from the children's surroundings, or sometimes TV and movies.

Some young people are just venting. That's what 15-year-old Wesley Tolson says he was doing when he sent his mother an e-mail suggesting the U.S. military ''nuke'' all Middle East countries that don't support the United States and then seize their oil assets.

''But I was just joking around,'' says Tolson, who lives in Houston.

In reality, he says, any plan for retaliating ''is a tricky situation, and a lot of kids see that.''

Robert Billingham, a professor of human development and family studies at Indiana University, says spouting off, especially for boys, is a primal response. He compares it to the ''banging on the chest and hooting and hollering'' that apes do when they feel threatened.

''The danger is that if you do it in a peer group, it's kind of like throwing gasoline on a fire,'' Billingham says.

He says fear of that ''mob mentality'' prompted officials on his Bloomington, Ind., campus to take swift action after hearing that Middle Eastern students were being verbally harassed after the attacks.

''We went into our classrooms and just lambasted the stupidity of this behavior and said 'You will not do this,''' Billingham says. ''I think the students were surprised, but it also seemed to work.''

When it comes to younger children, he and Feldman say it's first important to assure them their feelings are normal -- and then to calmly discuss the underlying anxiety and anger.

They say it's also important to talk through alternatives to the fantasies, and to remind them that the government and the adults around them are working to keep them safe.

''We've been lauded by the world for staying calm, thinking things through, looking at options, trying to reason with people,'' Feldman says of the government response. ''That's a great example for kids.''

Still, as the military prepares, experts say children are only likely to have more questions.

Carol Gifford, a mother in Lansdale, Pa., says that's true of her 7-year-old daughter, Elizabeth Bloom.

Nearly three weeks after the attacks, Elizabeth still fears that her school will be bombed. She's also worried about her 18-year-old brother, who's a freshman at American University in Washington.

But Elizabeth is also mad and has her own ideas about punishing those responsible -- for starters, taking away their ''guns and stuff and all their bombs,'' she says.

''And then we should put them someplace so they can't destroy anything for a really long time -- for like a year or two because that would keep them out of trouble for a while.''

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On the Net:

KidsPeace sites: http://www.kidspeace.org and http://www.teencentral.net



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