While it is important to help children cope with the televised explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, well-meaning teachers, parents, counselors and journalists who continue dwelling on its potential negative impact could make matters worse, according to some mental-health experts.
"I'm getting a little concerned about what is happening," said Dr. Brian Flynn, coordinator of emergency operations at the National Institute of Mental Health.
"I'm delighted there is so much recognition of the psychological meaning of this, particularly with children. At the same time, I think we have to be careful not to overemphasize this and create or magnify problems that are manageable by our own psychological resources," he said.
"I think it's important to remember that for most people -- and most children -- while this is something they will always remember, it's highly unlikely that this is going to have a long-term, negative psychological impact," Flynn added. "Children are tremendously resilient."
Dr. Robert Pynoos, a University of California at Los Angeles psychiatrist who specializes in trauma, violence and bereavement in childhood, said, "It's important to keep a balance."
"We neither want to overestimate or underestimate the wide variety of experiences, depending on how close the event comes to home . . . . There is going to be a spectrum of responses," he said.
"I think sometimes we talk about kids being affected by such things when we are the ones affected by those things," said Marla Caplan of Towson, Md., a psychologist who treats many children and adolescents. "It's probably more accurate to say, 'The child in me is upset by this.' "
In classrooms nationwide, attention was focused on Tuesday's launch of seven astronauts, including Christa McAuliffe, who would have been the first teacher in space. Many watched in awe as the shuttle lifted off, only to see its destruction 74 seconds later.
Many communities have made special attempts to help children cope. The incident has been woven into lesson plans and homework assignments. Teachers have held class discussions, inviting students to share feelings about the disaster. They have asked students to write essays about it, to watch television news programs about it or read newspaper coverage.
At Piney Branch Elementary School in Takoma Park yesterday, a science teacher encouraged fourth- and fifth-graders to "come and visit" if they started "feeling terrible" about the space shuttle.
At Rock Creek Forest Elementary School in Chevy Chase, a homework assignment Wednesday for second and third graders involved writing a paragraph and drawing a picture of the explosion.
One boy produced a drawing filled with thick black crayon lines that read: "The space shuttle exploded in the sky because there was a leak and all the space people died when the space ship exploded."
While such efforts can be helpful, Flynn stressed, "one of the key things is for parents and teachers to take the lead from the children, not to lead the children into things. Being available to talk and to answer questions and to comfort children is critically important. But it's very important not to make more of it than the child is ready to make of it."
UCLA's Pynoos said, "The major issue for parents and teachers is to make themselves available and permit open discussion with the child."
Wally Siggers, a school psychologist in Montgomery County, said, "You do want to have kids be able to explain their emotions and be ready to deal with them, but it's a mistake for a teacher to start pressing and inferring that kids should have reactions."
Experts agree that some adults and children are likely to be far more vulnerable, particularly those in such communities as McAuliffe's hometown of Concord, N.H., or areas where space-agency workers are predominant.
Also particularly vulnerable, they said, would be those already at risk psychologically because of trauma such as death, divorce or illness in their families.
Dr. James Wells, deputy director of Central New Hampshire Community Mental Health Services in Concord, described the emotional impact there as "very great." He said many children are experiencing "depression, difficulty concentrating, clinging more closely to their parents" and in some instances did not want to return to school the day after the disaster.
But he also noted "a unity, a camaraderie, a commonality that everybody is in this together."
"People seem to be dealing with this tragedy reasonably," said Dr. Tom Radecki of Champaign, Ill., a psychiatrist with the National Coalition on Television Violence.
Although his group strongly opposes violence as a means of entertainment on television, Radecki said he did not object to frequent replays of the shuttle explosion because it "reminded children that death is a real thing. That sometimes it can strike suddenly gives children an opportunity to learn how to handle it."
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has no plans to initiate a special program to help children cope with the disaster, agency official Frank Owens said yesterday.