Dealing With Nuclear Anxieties In Children

Translated by Volker Beck and Barbara Koerner

By Horst E Richter

By Horst E. Richter

Translated by Volker Beck and Barbara Korner

One clear conclusion comes from my ten years of counseling and research into the mental disturbances of young children and teenagers: Children react more to what their parents are than to what they say. In general, children sense exactly what is happening in their parents' subconscious. It is thus most important for children to see their parents live life convincingly.

Children don't break down when parents openly admit their own problems and worries. Parents, on the other hand, who hide their misery and demand that their children exempt them from their own worries by displaying happiness actually impose an unbearable burden on those children. Their children are likely to fail in just the way they themselves failed.

Negative visions of the future generate feelings of insecurity that are countered by massive denial. At this moment in history, most adults don't want to hear any more about the destruction of the environment, about missiles, or about the danger of nuclear war. They ask to be soothed and entertained by the media, and they object to the many prophets who insist on bringing repressed truths into broad daylight. Woe to anyone who disturbs the brittle, superficial confidence they maintain with such difficulty. And woe to anyone who teaches children anything but that the world is harmonious and will continue to function well if only everybody cooperates obediently.

Over the past years, a number of scientific studies have been conducted in Europe and North America concerning youths' hopes and fears of the future. These studies confirm clearly that fears of nuclear war are pronounced in children, both in the East and the West.

Take, for example, the results of a socio-psychological study from the Federal Republic of Germany. In 1985, 3499 children and teenagers (ages 9 to 18) were questioned as to their fears and visions of the future. This study, conducted in accordance with strict scientific procedures, demonstrated strikingly that political fears surpass the so-called private fears; 53 percent of the girls and 47 percent of the boys believe that Germany will get involved in a nuclear war within the next fifteen or twenty years -- i.e. before they reach mid-life. The same study, if conducted after the Chernobyl disaster, would even more radically destroy adults' illusions that children live in a idyllic world. And besides their short-term reactions to the growing threat, we must be especially concerned about the long-term psychological effects on the development of the younger generation.

The study of American authors Lisa Goodman and John E. Mack yielded similar findings. In 1982, they undertook thorough interviews with thirty one teenagers (ages fourteen to nineteen) from the Boston area. An impending nuclear war existed in all of their fantasies. "Some seemed to live on two different planes. In one way they were planning quite normally for their future, while in another way they were oppressed by the prospect of inevitable nuclear destruction."

An interesting comparative study of American and Soviet children, led by the American scientists E. Chivian, L. Goodman, and J. Mack, has been conducted in close cooperation between American and Soviet physicians. There were 293 Soviet and 200 American children (ages nine to seventeen, with an average of thirteen years) who were questioned. The authors came to the following conclusions:

  1. . Both Soviet and American children have quite detailed knowledge of the effects of nuclear weapons. They get their information from the media, from school, and from parents.
  2. . While both Soviet and American children are concerned about the possibility of a nuclear war, the Soviet children are even more disturbed than the American ones. In both cases, feelings of despair and helplessness are connected with the idea that a nuclear war could break out some time.
  3. . Having little trust in the feasibility of civil defence, Soviet children less often expect their families to survive.

An extensive study of children's fears in children in non-aligned Finland is also of interest. A representative poll was taken there from children aged twelve to eighteen. Altogether 2167 children were questioned. Although Finland is a nuclear weapon-free, neutral country, 60 percent of the children listed war first among their fears. The authors of the study reacted with shock, among them the Finnish minister of social affairs, Vappu Taipale, who is a well-known child psychiatrist. In their conclusion they say, "The extent of fears related to war revealed by this study exceeds all the expectations of adults, even mental health workers, in Finland."

No doubt a disparity exists between adults' views of children and the children's real mental disposition. Most adults don't want to know about the menacing fantasies that our children deal with, precisely because we are striving to deny what the children could remind us of. We older people are often too calloused to react with appropriate alarm to long term dangers, however severe they may be. In isolated instances, we may feel shocked, as when Reykjavik fails, when SALT II is abandoned, when Chernobyl goes up in the air, or when the chemical industry contaminates the Rhine River. But many of us have a long-practiced, dubious ability to screen out again very quickly all problems that we cannot immediately perceive or influence directly through personal actions. As a result, threats come and go like fashions. The media use them to arouse our sensational curiosity for a while until we have enough and start to get bored.

Thus we adults should admit that we lack the capacity to be impressed by problems in proportion to their real importance. There is reason to assume that our children in their fantasies and emotions often register more clearly where the real, great problems lie. We probably can learn more about what we'll have to overcome from the dreams and daydreams of our children, and from pictures of sensitive, observant artists, than from the diagnoses and calculations of the experts.

Psychotherapeutic experience generally is consistent with the results of these studies of threat-anxieties in children in different countries. Everywhere, the public and experts alike are shocked about the newly discovered extent of children's worries over the destruction of the environment and the danger of nuclear war. What should we conclude from this?

Surely we must get used to speaking more openly with children about whatever already disturbs them. Diffuse fantasies, spun around hints, are much harder on children than clear information. Moreover, by openness -- by daring to talk freely about facts -- we can convey more of a sense of security than by the usual well-meant secrecy. It is important, of course, to relay the facts in combination with the hope that the worst can be averted. But children will take their parents' talk seriously only then when they see them getting actively involved with the problems.

We, the generations living today, are only a modest link in the unending chain of human and animal life. Instead, we act as if we had to use all technical developments here and now, to fight out the conflict between the two great blocs, and to get final control over nature. I personally believe that the biggest danger does not lie in the East's and West's enmity but in what they share.

Western capitalism and Eastern real, existing socialism have alike subjected themselves to the dynamic of technical progress, which has become largely self-perpetuating instead of being guided by decision makers. Nuclear armament, the civilian nuclear industry, and some other high-risk high technologies are not being seriously viewed in terms of the risks that they will impose on the chain of generations following us. I believe that the insecurity of living in a godforsaken world gives rise to an irrational compulsion to be in control. As physicians, we witness the pressure of this obsession with omnipotence as a social denial of death. There is an ambition to conquer death through scientific progress. The denial of our mortality hinders work in medicine and is symptomatic of the loss of a sense of human proportion and of true responsibility for the corning generations.

Professor Dr. Richter is Director of the Department of Psychosomatics at the University of Giessen's hospital. He is a physician, a psychoanalyst, and chairperson of the West German International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. His book, Psychology of Peace (unfortunately, not available in English) deals with mental and emotional changes in the nuclear age. This article is an excerpt from a talk given to physicians in Frankfurt a few months ago.

Peace Magazine Aug-Sep 1987

Peace Magazine Aug-Sep 1987, page 7. Some rights reserved.

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