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Talking with your kids about war

Christopher Ross — November 1984

The following article was excerpted from a longer version which appeared in the Summer 1984 issue of Therapy Now.

Much of our anxiety about our children’s reaction to nuclear war is a reflection of our own muddled way of coping with the unimaginable — a nuclear holocaust. Mostly we push the fear from our awareness. Children are not so good at emotional avoidance. So the issue is not whether to shield your children from’ nuclear anxiety. Rather it is whether or not they have to deal with the fear alone, without adults ‘being around’ — in the sense of their being willing to talk about the issues.

As long ago as 1965, Dr. Escalona asked school children in New York this question: “What are’ some of the ways in which the world would be different ten years from now”?

An amazing 70% spontaneously mentioned the possibility of a nuclear war. Beardsley and Mack in 1982 in a survey of 1100 children in four American cities found over 505 of children-below the age of 12 knew about the dangers. In Finland, a country less involved in the arms race than Canada, the fear of war outweighed all other fears in every age group. Of the 12 year-olds who expressed fears, 79% mentioned war, and 27% thought about it weekly. A small group — about 8% — stood apart from the rest: these youngsters appeared preoccupied with war saying they thought about it almost every day. Girls seem to be more aware of the issue and talk about it more. A survey in California found that fear of nuclear war was second only to fear of a parent dying.

When adults actually approach them about the issue, children seem remarkably clear, and appreciative of the opportunity to express themselves.

“I think it is necessary to discuss and learn about the issue of nuclear war, but I find it very scary, so I try not to think about it. hut I do discuss it and go on marches,” (15 year old Toronto High School student).

Not only do children think about it, they care, and are often upset:

I have this dream every couple of months and it just keeps coming back: Something happened in school, and first there was a big BOOM, and then an earthquake and things started flying, Everything parted and I almost fell in, and when I went outside there were only four survivors of the whole entire thing.” (Melissa, aged 12.)

Children are also angry, though for the time being, more at leaders and government than at adults in general: “

“There are old men with fingers on the button, and they are playing with our lives, which we haven’t had yet, while they’ve had long full ones. It makes me mad.” (Kirk, aged 15).

It is hard for the growing adolescent with this experience not to feel alienated from the institutions of society — be it school, church or governments. \ Long term goals begin to seem pointless in the face of possible extinction, and it is tempting to withdraw and look solely to excitement in the present moment.

.. Personally I feel it is hopeless — that it (the arms race) is not going to STOP and I’m going to die before my time. We take drugs because we are trying to make the best of the time we have got.” (Kirk, aged 15).

Of course it is difficult to separate cause from effect or individual sensitivity from objective danger. Nevertheless the threat of nuclear war would certainly seem to increase the difficulty of growing up with a measure of self esteem, worthwhile ideals, and an adequate identity, especially when adults, looked to as models’ for problem solving, seem unconcerned, fatalistic or uncommunicative. The threat of nuclear extinction also robs the growing child of the sense of permanence which she needs in order to develop an enduring sense of herself. Why delay gratification and develop ‘ideals’ if the physical future is not assured?

Children are affected differently at different ages: to a baby the world outside is generally threatening. Confronted with disaster, the child between 4 and 6 expresses concern only as to what will happen to them if “mummy and daddy” are gone. Between 6 and 8 they seem able to grasp that no-one at all may be left to care for them. Only after 8 years does the child have a sufficient sense of her own identity to realise that she too would be killed. Once a child has a sense of her own mortality, this is probably the time to have the courage to sound the child out and check if their general fears have been added to by awareness of the real danger of nuclear extinction.

As adults, however, our own half conscious attempts to protect ourselves from an uncomfortable reality subtly but frequently get in the way of involving ourselves with the child’s world and looking and seeing what the child really needs. Too often we shy away from a child’s simplicity and directness. Too often we are inclined to give way to our fear of what conflicts may be stirred up in us by a child’s searching questions or intense feelings.

If we want to face the nuclear reality with energy, and realistic hope, rather than tense doom, it helps to know the clever ways we deceive ourselves as adults. Psychologists’ call these defense mechanisms. Knowledge of them can reduce defensiveness with our children. Four defense mechanisms are frequently involved in our handling of the nuclear issue: denial, depersonalisation, projection, fragmentation.

Denying the Nuclear Threat

We all use the defense of denial in our lives. Spontaneously we look away from the TV screen when we see a massacre on the 6 o’clock news.’ This is a natural and largely conscious avoidance of nasty aspects of reality. What is harmful about denial is that we actually pretend the world is different from what it is. We suppress our feelings and distort facts to support our wish that the threat of nuclear extinction would go away.

Moreover we get angry at people who confront us with facts that do not square with what we want to believe and make our task of denial more difficult. The most extreme effects of this process was observed in the survivors of Hiroshima who claimed they “suddenly felt nothing.” Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton coined the term “psychic numbing” to describe such denial. This condition afflicts us all to some degree, We all block our feelings because feelings of fear, anger and desperation are uncomfortable. If we had the courage to experience them we might feel pushed to start to do ..something about the situation.

Children’s feelings, however, lie closer to the surface: they are more inclined to admit to their terror. Nor do adult techniques of denial impress them;

“Reagan’s just as scared as we are, he’s trying to show muscle. Probably deep down he’s freaked out. But he covers it up by showing off strength. (Ricky, aged 12).

Depersonalising the Arms Race

There is a sense in which we are already “at nuclear war,” and the first casualty has been the truth. Because we could not face ourselves as the actual person who is willing to push the button that will result in mass killing, we depersonalise the reality by discussing abstract statistics, and cleverly laundering new words such as “overkill”, “megatonnage”, “stockpiles.” This form of language has been dubbed ‘newspeak,’ Thus:

“Using conventional delivery vehicles, NATO has an overkill capacity of eight. Accuracy can be improved with the development of re-entry vehicle system”

actually means,

“The Canadian Government and its Allies are willing and able to kill 200 million men, women and children eight times over, but we could be more efficient about it if the bombs were fired from space satellites.”

Children by and large lack the ability to use language in this way. When they see a newspaper headline with ‘bomb’ in it they may actually ‘see’ the bodies being killed and ‘feel’ the impact. Consequently, they may have a need to talk about it with you, the same as if a car had just missed them when it mounted the sidewalk outside school.

Projecting what is bad onto the other side

Few of us can live with ourselves as mass killers of innocent civilians, even if they do have different beliefs. Consequently, we have to make our victims ‘bad’, or less than human, in order to keep our humanity intact. On the whole we think that burning heretics three hundred years ago was not a good thing. And yet we support the theory of nuclear deterrence which is based on our willingness to have the doomsday button pushed.

Projection is a common human mechanism. We use it often when our relationships are stressed: the tired and irritable husband who drops the china tea pot exclaims ‘Look what you made me do’ to his wife, in order to live with his own grief at breaking something precious to him. With nuclear bombs the damage is greater, but the justification is as ‘mature! “Look what you nasty Russians made me do to you.”

Fragmentation of daily action from thinking about nuclear explosions

We lead a double life. We conduct our affairs as if nothing has changed while knowing that with the bombing of Hiroshima everything has changed. The NATO and NORAD Treaties we have negotiated involve the possibility of a nuclear holocaust in 90 minutes time. So that we can go about our lives, we call these agreements between governments ‘security treaties.’ If we tried to explain this to our children they would find it hard to understand.

As we become aware of how these and other psychological defense mechanisms have distorted our awareness, new possibilities for more direct communication open up.

Often, however, in order to get to a deeper level of relationship with our family some discomfort is involved. The same applies to really close contact with relating to our children around the possibility of nuclear extinction. In some ways awakening to the nuclear issue is like mourning the death of a loved one. Fortunately we know something about the stages of successful mourning:

First there is (i) denial: ‘This isn’t possible.’ Denial usually gives way to (ii) shock and paralysis. If the person is talked with and given real life facts, this stage completes and specific (iii) fears can be expressed. (“What will happen to me?) (iv) the fourth stage is anger: (“How could this be allowed to happen’?” “Who is responsible’?”) Usually when he can express his outrage, there is then room for the courage to experience the (v) sadness and the loss of who is loved. It is then — facing the reality — that we can move into (vi) resolution and mobilisation.

What is true for individual mourning can also be true collectively. There is, however, one big difference between the nuclear threat and personal mourning: the Great Loss has not yet occurred. We live now in The Day Before, and nuclear warfare invented by mankind, can be prevented by mankind,

It takes a mixture of realism and courage to be able to be with your children on this issue. It takes honesty to admit to them that you are worried, and to admit that while you do not have a foolproof answer you are ready and willing to live with them inside the nuclear question, My ‘experience is that facing the nuclear issue with my family and colleagues has opened these relationships and allowed us to face together many together issues that had previously separated us.


If you are interested, here’ are some :straightforward steps that you can take:

Step I — Wake-up: dare to experience the unimaginable

Right now sit up in your chair. Close your eyes and imagine how someone you love will die if an atomic bomb dropped three miles away. Open your eyes. How do you feel? Helpless, angry, some fear or sadness? Now close your eyes again and imagine how a resident in a Moscow suburb will die if the same bomb is dropped on the Moscow Zoo. Remember pictures you may have seen of Hiroshima survivors. Open your eyes, How do you feel? Bewildered, sad, afraid, furious, outraged, determined, empowered? You have probably started a process of a wakening and aliveness, and raised the ceiling that you had to place on your capacity to feel The process of awakening to nuclear disaster is actually a liberating experience, even though you may go through a series of experiences similar to grieving.

Step II — Communicate

There are few human problems to which communication does not make a favourable difference. So ask another adult to do the exercise as well Talk about the results. Which images were different? What was the order of the feelings you went through?

How you communicate with your children will be different and will depend on their age and development. Here are some rough guidelines.

(i) Below 9 years:
(a) Ask only non-leading questions about warfare and nuclear weapons. e.g. “What are the different kinds of war that you know about?”
(b) Acknowledge any feelings you may notice that they are experiencing, by verbally labeling them. “That might be scary,” “Sounds like you are angry.”
(ii) 9 to 12 years:
In addition to non-leading questions and responding to feelings, you could supply specific information on the nuclear issue, ask more specific questions, and ask for their response to your opinions.
(iii) 13 plus:
Make it clear that you are willing to discuss the nuclear arms race, and invite their contribution to working out global alternatives, as well as personal plans for family members.

Step III — Educate yourself

Learn more about the issue. There are lots of readable books and pamphlets available. Here are some to start:

Not with our lives you don’t. $0.50 available from the United Church of Canada, 85 St. Clair Avenue East, Toronto, M4T I M8.

The Fate of the Earth by Jonathan Schell. Publisher: Alfred & Knopf 1982 $2.00. Nuclear Madness — What you can do by Helen Caldicott. Autumn Press 1978 $3.95.

Step IV — Participate

Find a disarmament group compatible with your particular interests or close to where you live. You may go to a meeting and be surprised to find another nervously anxious person like yourself. Alternatively call a lunch time meeting at work.

Finally, a word from Johnny, aged 10. Johnny was in a class with one of those terribly biased teachers who had just presented some facts about the nuclear arms race. At the end she asked the students “Who is afraid there will be a nuclear war one day.” The whole class put up their hands, but not Johnny. The teacher asked:

“Why didn’t you put up your hand Johnny”~ Johnny’s reply was heard clearly across the classroom.

“Cause I don’t think there is going to be a war, because both my parents are going to meetings to stop it”.

False optimism you say? Well maybe. What is true is that our children do not expect us to guarantee to them a beautiful future, but they do expect us to do what we can to make some future more certain. Their responsibility will be to make it more beautiful. Now is that a fair partnership?

Christopher Ross. Ph. D.. is a clinical psychologist. founding chairperson of Ontario Psychologists for Social Responsibility. and a member of the Canadian Committee of the Peace Petition Caravan Campaign. He recently collaborated in a study of the hopes and fears of 1000 Toronto school children. He has a practice in West Toronto, and gives workshops on the use and limits of psychology in stopping the arms race.