There was much media attention last week about a Bucks County, PA, woman who allegedly absconded with her 9 year old daughter, presumably used a co-worker's ID and money from an unknown source and called police stating that she and the child had been abducted. An "Amber Alert" had been issued for the daughter, and a nationwide search had begun for the mother and daughter. The pair was later found at Disney World in Florida, and the mother was taken into custody for identity theft and filing a false police report.
There has been much speculation about the woman's state of mind and the reason for her bizarre behavior, but little attention has been paid to the potential impact this event will have on the daughter who went along with her mother, presumably for a vacation to Orlando. KidsPeace Clinical Director Dr. Peter Langman says that this incident and the coverage it has had in the media has the potential to cause problems for the child. "A great deal depends on the maturity level this child has reached," Langman says. "It is unclear how much of this she understands and how much anxiety this causes her." Langman explained that the child may be confused and most likely does not understand the legal implications of what her mother has done. "A 9 year old child may not be mature enough to process the concepts of identity theft and false police reports and the consequences of these acts," according to Langman.
Langman explains that the child may not be able to internalize this information at her age, which would make it difficult for her to articulate in words what she is feeling. This could lead to acting out and an inability to put the incident behind her. Langman suggests that the child be watched carefully for changes in behavior. He says that the way her family responds to what has happened and the opportunities they give her to talk about it will directly affect how this young girl will come through this trauma.
Finally, the daughter's ability to deal with this event will depend a great deal on how the story is received by her schoolmates. "If her peers make fun of her or her mother's behavior, she may have a much harder time getting back to 'normal,'" Langman says. Some children may envy her noteriety and say unkind things to upset her. Her teachers will likely try to prevent other children from blowing this new-found fame out of proportion and from making the girl the center of attention and gossip. "If her friends and classmates rally around her, she will adjust much more easily and be able to put this incident behind her," Langman concludes.