Family Matters

Boy in the Bunker: Alabama 5-Year-Old Starts the Road to Recovery

A week after he was taken hostage in an underground bunker, Ethan is now free.

  • Share
  • Read Later
Mark Wallheiser / Getty Images

A 5 year old boy named Ethan was abducted from a school bus and held hostage for 6 days in the small town of Midland City in southwest Alabama. A sign put out in support of him is seen in this Feb. 5, 2013 photo.

A week after he was taken hostage in an underground bunker, Ethan is now free.

His ordeal began when 65-year-old Jimmy Lee Dykes boarded Ethan’s school bus, shot the driver and then took the boy to his tiny bunker. FBI agents stormed the room and killed Dykes, but the emotional aftershocks for Ethan may just be beginning.

Not only will he need help processing the trauma he’s endured, but he’s also pinned beneath the glare of the media spotlight, which may not help his path toward healing. According to news reports, he also has Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism that makes it harder for him to pick up on social cues, as well as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Such diagnoses could make it either more difficult or easier for him to overcome his experience, say experts.

The first priority is to reassure Ethan that he is safe and secure. His relatives reported he was gleefully scurrying around the hospital where he was taken for evaluation and watching SpongeBob. But that behavior belies a need for intensive therapy in the weeks ahead, says Robin Gurwitch, a child psychologist who studies the impact of trauma at Duke University’s Center for Child and Family Health.

“Some of the biggest fears children who have experienced trauma have are: Will I be OK? Can it happen again? Will the people I love be OK?” says Gurwitch. “Children have to re-establish their sense of safety and security.”

Research shows that most children, even those who survive extreme trauma, do recover relatively well. “We used to think if they went through horrific traumatic events that they are never going to be OK,” says Gurwitch. But only a small percentage of these kids end up developing problems that rise to the level of severe psychopathology.

The key to that ability to bound back is young children’s resiliency. But just because most children are resilient is not a reason to assume they don’t need support. One of the treatments that can prove useful for young children is called trauma-focused cognitive-behavior therapy, or TFCBT. In about a dozen sessions, therapists can help children develop a narrative of their experience, teaching coping strategies for managing anxiety if they suddenly recall frightening or disturbing memories. Kids learn to relax their bodies if they feel themselves tensing when thinking about what happened to them. “It’s one of the gold-standard treatments for very young children,” says Gurwitch.

(MORE: How Disasters and Trauma Can Affect Children’s Empathy)

It’s also important to encourage children, and Ethan in particular, to talk about what they went through. Some kids may respond better to conversation, others to computers or art therapy. Because kids with Asperger’s may have difficulty understanding nuanced social cues or subtle language, it’s possible that Ethan didn’t fully comprehend the implications of what could have happened to him; that ignorance may help ease his recovery. On the other hand, Ethan may be finding it tough to process what happened. “One would expect that from any 5-year-old but for him more so than any other child,” says Tanya Paparella, an associate clinical professor in the Division of Child Psychiatry at UCLA.

What might prove most critical in his journey toward normalcy is the luxury of simply being left alone. That’s tough to guarantee in a 24/7 media culture where stories about traumatized children capture the public’s imagination. “The public feels like, We rooted for you, you were in our prayers and in our hearts, and now we get to find out what happened to you,” says David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. But when it comes to vulnerable children, it might be best to let them be. “The best thing is for them to return to their precrime existence as quickly as possible and not to have an involuntary identity as ‘that child,’” says Finkelhor.

If Ethan were physically or sexually abused or threatened with death, broadcasting that may only stigmatize him further. “Privacy is very hard to achieve in our society because everyone has a lot of curiosity, but we have to recognize that we’re not necessarily entitled to know everything,” says Finkelhor.

Katie Beers knows better than most how important it is to be discreet. She was 10 when she was confined for two weeks in a Long Island bunker by a man she had considered a family friend. Now 30 and married with two children in Pennsylvania, she reflected on her 1993 ordeal in her new book, Buried Memories, and told, “I’m really hoping that he’s going to be able to get the privacy and counseling he is ultimately going to need to return to some kind of normalcy.” Ethan may be too young to fully comprehend what he just endured, but giving him the space and tools to continue to process the experience in coming months and years may be the best way to help him cope with the trauma.

MORE: Childhood Trauma Leaves Legacy of Brain Changes)