Do Children Report Different Types of Information About Traumatic and Nontraumatic Events

A "good narrative" includes several types of information, including the who, what, where, when, why, and how of the event. As we reported in Ackil et al. (2003), the breadth of the mother-children conversations differed as a function of whether they were talking about the tornado or the non-traumatic events. Specifically, tornado conversations were more likely to include contextual information (e.g., mention of being in a specific location during the event), information about the causes and consequences of elements of the event, and temporal connections within and between elements of the event. An example from one of the children in the study illustrates these features:

I remember the sirens going off . . . and we all came downstairs to our TV room and watched the TV to see what was going on. . . . We kept on watching the news and it started to get dark in the sky. I remember you [the child's mother] were baking something and you told me to quickly go upstairs . . . to turn off the oven. Then I heard you scream at me to get back down and you told me that you had heard like a high-pitched whistle. And then we got under a desk in the TV room and, let's see . . . we didn't have a blanket because the blankets were at the other side of the room and you were too scared to go across it because there was windows in between on both sides.

The differences in the breadth of the conversations about the tornado and the nontraumatic events were apparent even after we took into account the greater length of the conversations. Moreover, the differences largely endured over the 6-month interval between sessions (Ackil et al., 2003). Thus, in critical ways, conversations about the traumatic event were more complete.

Although the conversations about the traumatic event included more narrative categories, children's contributions to them were not markedly more detailed. As discussed in Bauer et al. (in press), relative to the non-traumatic event conversations, in the tornado conversations children provided more orientations (information regarding who participated in the event, physical objects that were part of the event, descriptions of objectively available features of objects or events, and information about where and when the event occurred), actions (descriptions of what the characters in the activity were doing during the event), connections (links between aspects of events, typically conveyed through words such as first, then, before, and after, and because, if, so, and since), and evaluations (subjective experiences and impressions of the event, including subjective modifiers, internal states, and intensifiers). However, once the greater length of the tornado conversations was taken into account, the differences in the amount of detail the children provided no longer were apparent, at either session. That is, per unit of conversation, the children provided the same number of orientations, actions, connections, and evaluations about the tornado and the nontraumatic events. The only exception was for the oldest children in the sample (i.e., 7- to 11-year-olds) in terms of the specific type of evaluation that conveys information about internal states (i.e., words that describe emotional, cognitive, perceptual, and physiological states). At the second session (10 months after the storm), the contributions that the oldest children made to the tornado conversations were more saturated with internal-states language relative to their contributions to the conversations about the nontraumatic events (Bauer et al., 2005). This difference had not been apparent at the first session (4 months after the storm); it was not apparent for either of the younger groups of children in the sample (i.e., 3- to 7-year-olds) at either session.

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