OBJECTIVE: The Challenger spacecraft explosion in 1986 offered an
opportunity to study the thinking of normal children after a sudden and
distant disaster, differences in thinking among children of different
levels of emotional concern and different ages, and changes in their
thinking over time. METHOD: The authors studied six thinking patterns known
to characterize childhood posttraumatic stress disorder and four additional
hypothesized patterns in 153 randomly selected children of Concord, N.H.
(who watched the explosion on television) and Porterville, Calif. (who
heard about it later). They compared the structured-interview responses of
the more involved (East Coast) and less involved (West Coast) children, of
the latency-age children and the adolescents, and of the children initially
(5-7 weeks after the explosion) and 14 months later. RESULTS: The children
exhibited the 10 predictable thinking patterns. They initially defended
themselves, denying the reality of the explosion. They later fantasized
about it. They tried to cope by seeking additional information on their
own, at home, and at school. Most children talked about Challenger, but a
minority of the latency-age youngsters avoided related talk and thoughts.
The adolescents experienced more paranormal thinking, philosophical
changes, and negative attitudes. Over the year, omens, paranormal
experiences, and Challenger-based fantasies tended to disappear, but
negative views about institutions and the world's future held steady or
increased. CONCLUSIONS: The children's thinking followed predictable
patterns. A higher degree of emotional involvement (East Coast children)
was strongly linked to these thinking patterns, as was being an adolescent.
Distant disasters appear to set up commonalities of thought that might come
to characterize certain generations of children.