HOW NUCLEAR FEARS AFFECT CHILDREN EVEN IN PEACETIME
The drawings on the opposite page are a look at the Age of Overkill through the eyes of four children. Like their schoolmates, they are fearful — but child psychologists are learning hoiv to help them avoid the emotional harm that usually accompanies prolonged fear. Your child may need this kind, of help
WHETHER THEIR PARENTS like it Or not, most children are aware that a nuclear sword of Damocles hangs over our heads. Last fall Dr. Karl Bernhardt, director of the University of Toronto Institute of Child Study, called for a halt to civil defense school drills because “the kids are frightened enough already by the world situation without adding fuel to their fears.” When the U. S. continued nuclear testing last year, and newspapers reported on the spread of fallout by precipitation, a Montreal teacher noted that many children in her classes anxiously followed the weather reports, fearing the downpour of “poisonous” rain and snow. Black mushroom clouds in the sky now frequently appear in the crude crayon drawings of small children. After an air raid drill, a seven-year-old asked his mother, “Why can’t we move somewhere where there isn't a sky?” A grade-five teacher reports that during a recent international crisis most of her pupils had dreams or nightmares about nuclear war. In one dream, the child was finally eaten by a dinosaur. In another, the boy committed suicide due to loneliness after killing the only remaining Russian boy. A high-school teacher reports that two teenagers, bosom pals, made arrangements to die together in the same shelter.
“Today,” says Dr. Sybille Escalona,‘a psychologist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, “children know at a
very early age that nuclear destruction is a dreadful public reality.” And, she adds, they know that the adults around them are frightened too.
WHAT OF PARENTS WHO ARE AFRAID?
Here is the heart of a painful new dilemma that has overtaken our children and ourselves so silently that few parents are fully aware they face it and almost none are fully able to conquer it. How can parents who are themselves afraid dispel the fears that may stunt the emotional growth of their children? As yet nobody knows all the answers, but in what almost amounts to a new branch of child psychology many specialists are beginning to grapple with the problem. A number of studies about how children think, feel and react to the nuclear threat have recently been completed; others are planned for the future. The Canadian Peace Research Institute (CPRI) has conducted surveys involving several hundred teenagers. Dr. Milton Schwebel, a New York University psychologist, interviewed some three thousand school children during the 1961 Berlin crisis, and the same number during the Cuban crisis of last year. Dr. Sybille Escalona, the psychologist quoted above, has recently published Children and the Threat of Nuclear War, a document which was prepared at the request of the Child Study Association of America. Other studies on the same theme are
by Dr. I. Ziferstein, and John W. Darr Jr., a fifth-grade teacher at New York's Ethical Culture School. While most of these documents are based on studies of American children, Canadian authorities believe that the points they make apply also to Canadian children — particularly to children old enough to read today's scare headlines, comprehend news and debates on television and join in discussions of international crises. The young American children referred to in the studies listed above are likely to be more alarmed than their Canadian counterparts. But, as in so many things, Canada is probably moving toward the U. S. situation, however slowly and far behind.
WHAT OF CHILDREN WHO FEEL DOOMED?
Some of these studies begin by pinpointing exactly how many children believe that nuclear war is a real possibility. In the CPRI survey, one out of every four adolescents agreed with the statement, “nothing anyone can do will stop atomic war.” Half of the three thousand youngsters questioned by Dr. Schwebel said war was inevitable.
As international tension increases, so docs the children’s fear of a nuclear holocaust. In the fall of 1961 when nuclear testing was resumed, a large group of New York tenand elevenyear-olds were asked to write about themselves and the world they live in. Almost all of them mentioned bombs, war and the possibility that the world might soon cease to exist. In California during the height of the Cuban crisis, school children were handed special instruction sheets telling them what to do in case of nuclear attack. They were required to have their parents sign them and bring them back to school. According to Dr. Ziferstein, this drove many children into an unbearable state of fright. One child handed the sheet to his mother, begging, "Mother, please sign this right away if you want me to live.” One school superintendent reported, “The children’s anxiety worries me. Some do not want to go to school because of the present situation.”
What consequences of thermonuclear war do children fear most? Certainly death, but equally as important to them is the possibility of being separated from their families. In the CPRI survey, almost seven out of ten teenagers were certain that at least three quarters or nearly all Canadians would be killed in an attack. This is a much more pessimistic view than the one held by adults. In Schwebcl's study, some of the personal reasons given for fearing an atomic war arc these: “I will die” . . . “My brothers, sisters, parents, friends will die” . . . "My family and I will be separated; if that happens, I’d rather be dead” ... “I am young and want a future to live, marry, have a family, work, create.”
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THE NUCLEAR THREAT
“If I began to care and think about it, I wouldn’t be able to enjoy life,” one boy said
Some of the youngsters expressed their fears in less personal terms. They spoke of "the world being destroyed, the earth thrown out of axis" . . . “Civilization will be destroyed" . . . “Innocent people and babies (even on the enemy's side) and my generation who had nothing to do with bringing it on. will die" . . . "God meant for men to live in peace and be brothers. What will war solve?” To five percent of Schwebel's interviewees, the prospect of war was so terrifying that they deliberately avoided thinking about it. "If 1 began to care and think about it. I wouldn't be able to enjoy life any more." said one boy.
Schwebel draws a number of conclusions from the responses made to his questions. The first is that the younger generation is acutely aware of the dangers of atomic warfare and is deeply concerned. Nor is it entirely a selfish interest. Hundreds were concerned about the fate of others. Many were saddened at the thought that the great progress of mankind, his culture and civilization itself, were endangered. "Their strongest emotions," says Schwebel. “were reserved for those adults who advocated shutting the door of a shelter on strangers and neighbors and. if need be. shooting them down. They were horrified at the suggestion and demanded that if shelters were built, they must be available to all people, rich or poor."
Reflected throughout all the replies received by Dr. Schwebel is the w'orry about being cut off from parents. This is not too surprising. A study of the impact of German air raids on the British populace in World War II clearly established that the presence of parents was the all-important source of reassurance and comfort to children. For example, nursery-school tots could withstand lack of food and physical comfort and endure bombs exploding around them with apparently no ill effects. “But," w'rote Drs. Anna Freud and Dorothy Burlingham, “war becomes enormously threatening and significant the moment it breaks up family life." It was the late Ralph Linton who described the cohesive family as the bedrock of human relationships and predicted that “in the Götterdämmerung which over - wise science and over-foolish statesmanship are preparing for us, the last man will spend his last hours searching for his wife and child.”
It may be that this deeply rooted fear of separation from parents underlies the unpopularity of shelters among children. If a surprise attack were to come during the day, mother, father and child would each be hiding out in a separate shelter. During the last Berlin crisis, two thirds of the highschool seniors and half of the highschool juniors told Dr. Schwebel that they were against shelters. During the Cuban crisis, the opposition was even stronger. "What good would the shelter be," asked one boy, "if you were saved but you were separated
from your family and maybe most of them were dead?” The children offered other arguments as well. “Some would be saved but there would be panic and riot” . . . "It's like building your own tomb; radiation will seep in and there would be shortages of food, water and oxygen” . . . “I’d rather be dead than come out and face a desolate world with bodies all around.”
On the shelter issue, there is a rift of opinion between children and “experts” on children. Some of the experts see great psychological value in a vigorous program of shelter construction. Preparing a shelter, they say, is assurance that something is being done as protection against a threatening danger. The family engaged in selecting and furnishing a shelter, rotating the food and water supplies, is apt to face the future with less fear. These “experts” hold that the same applies to school air raid drills.
“Such measures," explains Dr. I. Zifcrstcin, the Los Angeles psychiatrist, “safeguard the status of the authority figure — the head of the family, the teacher, the political leader." The person in authority, if he has no definite plan for coping with a dangerous situation, is apt to lose face with his followers. “Compared with the overwhelming power of a tenor onchundred-megaton bomb, father looks puny and ineffectual,” says Zifcrstcin. "This sense of the feebleness of the adult can increase the children's anxiety to the breaking point.” With a survival program to suggest, confidence is restored — in theory at least — in the wisdom, strength and guardian qualities of the authority figure.
But, unfortunately, the psychological benefits of a civil defense program are offset by a number of factors. Most importantly, children soon learn from the press, radio, TV and public and private discussion, that there is probably no true defense against the destructive power of nuclear weapons. Recently, for example, the remarks of Dr. Benjamin Spock, the child authority, were widely publicized. “School drills arc unwise and unfair,” he said. "It's a fraud on the children. There’s no safety under a desk so what’s the use of alarming the children?” The net result of these contradictions, according to Dr. Zifcrstcin, is that “children will feel that they have been deceived by parents."
How are children now handling their fears about nuclear war and
what effect is it having on their mental health? Several years of study will be necessary to answer this question completely. But a number of pertinent observations are possible on the basis of research already done. Children are aware that they're growing up in a world with a questionable future and, says Dr. Schwebel, “an insecure world is bound to take its toll in mental health. For the disturbed child, like several children in my study who cried themselves to sleep, terrified by thoughts of war, the extra burden of fear may be more than he can bear.” For the normal child, the uncertainty of the future produces eroding effects in more indirect form. "High-school girls are frightened by the danger of having deformed babies, boys and girls are cynical about preparing for a future of which they say they are being cheated.”
There are two general ways in which children can meet the prospect of an atomic holocaust. One is to avoid thinking about it and to deny that it exists. It sometimes works but the child pays a price. To keep the danger of war away from him, he must avoid all that is written and said about the nuclear threat. “He must also censor his thoughts,” says Schwebel. “Thus, to defend himself, he sacrifices some of his powers to read, listen and to think." The alternative is to face the real world. The price a child pays for this intellectual courage is a burden of fear.
Which of these two paths will a particular child take? According to Schwebel, he will tend to adopt the attitude of the adults closest to him —parents and teachers. “If our children see us act ostrich-like, and deny the existence of the threat, they will do likewise. If they see us hysterical or blind with rage, they are most likely to adopt emotional responses to the threat. If, on the other hand, they see us confront the issues in a rational, analytical way, sensitive to human values yet objective about the facts, they are likely to acquire these habits of thought.”
John W. Darr Jr., a fifth-grade teacher at the Ethical Cultural School, New York, has closely examined the manner in which the nuclear attitudes of parents influence their children. Some of Darr’s findings are at variance with those of other experts — a fact which underlines the confusion and paucity of knowledge among even highly qualified observers.
Darr lists what he believes are the three most frequent types of adult response to the nuclear threat. In the first category, he includes parents who are not anxious about nuclear war. and whose offspring therefore tend to feel a minimum amount of anxiety. Who are these parents? They’re people who focus on what they consider to be the greatest threat confronting us, namely, communism. They subscribe to the slogan, “Better dead than Red,” and believe that “we should drop the bomb on them first." Their energies are devoted to the advocacy of arming to the hilt and making vigorous defense preparations. If they're aware of the horrible destructive capacity of nuclear bombs, they don’t mention it. Darr feels that children growing up in a home where these views are strongly held are likely to enjoy “a relatively stable" environment, subject only to the stresses of frustration in cold war efforts.
In the second category. Darr places parents, who hold “vague fears about nuclear war. They do not know or do not wish to know all the facts about the nuclear threat, or if they once knew them, they have pushed them aside as irrelevant to the major concerns of their everyday lives." Their feelings of fatalism and impotence are captured in such phrases as "it's up to Washington” or “it's up to the Russians.” They have implicit faith in the “experts” and will do whatever they're told to do. “They prefer.” says Darr, "to enjoy life and focus their attention on the latest model motorboat or plans for a new house rather than follow international affairs.”
The children of such parents are unlikely to feel undue anxiety about nuclear war just so long as they remain at home. However, when they go to school and take part in realistic defense drills or attend college where they learn the full facts about atomic explosions, they may develop deeply disturbing anxieties about the future. “Such a child may become fatalistic, as his parents have become, or nihilistic in the face of the possibility that there may be no future for him." observes Darr.
Darr reserves the third category for “realistic” parents who make no bones about the possibility of a global catastrophe. Some of these parents feel powerless and helpless in the face ot the danger. Their children are apt to suffer from a double dose of anxiety: the fear of destruction and the frustration of not being able to do anything about it. “Such children,” says Darr, •‘might well become the delinquents of their generation.” Another group of the "realistic” parents react actively to the threat, rather than passively. They feel a personal responsibility to do something to remove the danger. They involve themselves in programs to ensure peace. This may be active support of the government’s deterrent policy or participation in ban-thebomb crusades. “The anxiety of their children will find relief in the active faith of their parents that nuclear war can be averted,” says Darr.
With the Bomb an inescapable and ugly reality, is there anything, specifically, that parents can do — or refrain from doing — to help their children maintain a sane, constructive outlook on life?
There are only imperfect and partial answers to this question. Teaching your child to face the nuclear threat is far different, say, from teaching him how to control his temper or how to overcome his fear of the dark. It can be said, too, that parents who themselves are overwhelmed by feelings of fear, helplessness and cynicism about the future, will have difficulty in lending their children valuable support. However, for those who are anxious to do what they can for their
youngsters in the present dilemma, Dr. Escalona's Children and the Threat of Nuclear War has some instructions.
I Children four to six years old can be easily reassured about all dangers, including the nuclear bomb. They believe that their parents are allpowerful and can protect them from evil. If a child wakes up with a nightmare about the Bomb, comfort him with a caress, a kiss and a warm glass of milk.
The child wants to know that the
parent knows all about the problem and will take care of him. Don't stimulate his fears by too much talk about nuclear danger.
Do clear up misunderstandings. Many children are confused and afraid that something is going to hurt them here and now. The child has to be told clearly that every plane flying overhead does not carry a nuclear bomb and that the rain and snow is not going to kill him.
Support a basic sense of reason and
dignity in human affairs. Parents should make it clear that they believe nations must settle their quarrels peacefully.
y Children from six to twelve years place enormous faith in knowing exactly what lies ahead of them and what they will be expected to do. This forestalls many fears. They ask questions. With regard to nuclear war, they’ll want to know about the size of the bombs, the depth of the shelters, who'll be with them, the speed
of missiles and what the post-explosion world will be like. On the subject of nuclear attack, it's obvious why the device of “forewarned is forearmed" fails to work. We don't know the answers and the child feels his helplessness -— even as we do — just because he does not know what to expect. But the child will draw some strength from the adult who does not shrink from questions and who communicates the feeling that human life and human values are important and
are worth cherishing and working for.
The experience of hearing nuclear war spoken of calmly and reasonably is reassuring to the child. It helps, at least, to relieve him from a sense of hidden worry. Children often imagine things are worse than they arc by misrepresenting what they read and hear.
Emphasize the activities, skills and resources that exist to combat nuclear danger. Each parent will select, for emphasis, those international, na-
tional or civic actions that seem to him most promising. These may include government negotiations, the United Nations, civil defense or the work of peace groups.
And finally, let children know about the attitudes and values that support triendly relations among nations. Given a chance, children can understand that people in other countries have the same needs, the same human qualities and they can draw strength from learning that millions of families all over the world are like themselves in that they wish to live in peace.
Si The nuclear threat has a special impact on adolescents. Even under ideal conditions, the teens are a period of violent emotions. The adolescent is dreaming and planning for the luture, yet, the possibility is now presented to him that no future exists. Teenagers may respond to the uncertainty in various ways. Some adopt the philosophy of enjoying life while they can. They disregard their studies and avoid responsibility because “the future looks grim." They may be reckless in their behavior with cars and dates, using the nuclear threat as a ready-made excuse.
Traditionally, teenagers have always rejected adult values and authority to some degree. Many young people today become extremely rebellious, explaining that the older generation is completely discredited because they have brought the world to the brink of destruction. Others react to our present peril by a callous indifference. Fear is usually the basis of this attitude. Despite the facade, disturbed feelings still exist.
At this age. young men and women are ready to take an active and deep interest in world affairs. Parents, teachers and other adults should take young people into a complete partnership. 1 hey should be encouraged to explore and discuss, without limit, the problems of war and peace.
Dr. Escalona, the author of Children and the Threat of Nuclear War, would be the first to admit that her treatise can only be of limited value to parents. For the imminent danger of nuclear war is not a "child care" problem; it is a world problem of unprecedented seriousness and complexity. The final solution lies in the ability of parents — in their role of citizens and political leaders — to discover the road to peace and survival. If we tail, then there can be no security — physical or emotional — for adults and children alike. ★