(NEW YORK) — The 5-year-old named Ethan who was held in a mock bunker for a week in Alabama after his captor pulled the boy from a school bus and killed the driver, will likely remember the trauma.
“Will this child remember this? The answer is absolutely,” said Rahil Briggs, a psychologist and director of the Healthy Steps program at Children’s Hospital at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. “We know across the board that memories attached to a highly emotional situation seem to have the most staying power in our minds. It will have quite an impact.”
Briggs has not seen or treated the child.
Ethan was rescued physically unharmed in an FBI raid of the underground bunker near Midland, Ala., on Tuesday, where he was being held hostage by 65-year-old Jimmy Lee Dykes, who was killed in the raid.
Neighbors reported that Ethan may have Asperger’s syndrome, which is on the autism spectrum. But that would have had little bearing on how the boy coped with his captivity, according to experts.
“My guess is that it was not a major feature,” said Kenneth Dodge, a clinical psychologist and professor of public policy at Duke University. “Any 5- or 6-year-old going through this kind of experience — let alone an adult — would be traumatized.”
Ethan’s great aunt said the family had no idea what Dykes may have done with the boy during his captivity.
Even though many of the details are not clear, what Ethan experienced was likely “quite scary and traumatic,” according to psychologist Dodge. “I can only imagine what it was like for him.”
“Children go through all kinds of trauma and this sounds pretty acute and severe,” he said. “What we know about these kinds of general experiences is that there is a lot of temporary anxiety.”
After trauma, children are likely to have temporary bouts of sleeplessness and cling to adults. Some will want to talk about the experience, and other children will not.
The long-term effects of trauma can include the signs of post-traumatic stress: chronic sleeplessness, anxiety, depression as well as substance abuse, said Dodge. Therapy is important, especially in the immediate aftermath of the experience.
“But the good majority of children will survive the trauma well in the long run, due to the support of their caregivers,” he said.
Getting a child to talk about the experience can be helpful, but “it’s a very fine line to walk and a hard one for adults,” according to Montefiore’s Briggs. “Make sure you are creating an environment and clear message that the child can talk about it.”
But adults should be careful not to respond in a “fearful or anxious” way, said Briggs. “Otherwise you are sending him the message, ‘Oops, don’t go there.'”
How Ethan copes will depend largely on how stable his life has been up until now.
“The strongest predictor of how a child functions after a trauma is how they were functioning before a trauma,” said Briggs. “If he was, indeed, doing quite well, and had good coping skills, stability and routine, that’s important for a 5-year-old and we hope he will emerge relatively intact. Children are very resilient.”
Officials have not yet provided any further details on the raid, citing the ongoing investigation. Officials say that Ethan is still in the hospital.
Ethan’s captor allegedly shot and killed a school bus driver, Albert Poland Jr., 66, last Tuesday and threatened to kill all the children on the bus before taking the boy.
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