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Shellshocked by the WAR : TALKING ABOUT IT : Parents: To Children, Danger Isn't Distant; It's in the Television

February 03, 1991|Robert Jay Lifton | Robert Jay Lifton is distinguished professor of psychiatry and psychology at the City University of New York and director of the Center on Violence and Human Survival at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Among his recent books is "The Genocidal Mentality: Nazi Holocaust and Nuclear Threat" (Basic)

NEW YORK — George is 4 years old and is afraid that missiles are going to come out of the television set and get him. His parents try to reassure him otherwise, but George is perceiving reality in his own way. His fear reveals more than we would like to know about what is happening in the Gulf War, and not only to children.

A child of 4, of course, is just learning to order his realities. He is at an early stage in his grasp of cause and effect. But George watched plenty of television before the war broke out and had expressed no previous fears of anything on the screen harming him. He is now telling us something about the extraordinary role of television in this war and the sense of danger that the medium, whatever its limitations, can convey.

George, like all of us, is subjected to the radical extension of the mass-media revolution made possible by satellite television. He and his family are inundated with images and sounds of war, but, at the same time, curiously removed, mostly by technology, from what is really happening in the war. The television set has become a third party in the parent-child dialogue. This new and confusing three-way interaction has come to dominate family life in this country and perhaps throughout much of the world.

However illusory George's fear, it suggests that he is emotionally aware that missiles kill human beings. In this awareness, he may be ahead of his elders. We adults, to be sure, have much greater theoretical knowledge about such things. But we are also more inclined to immerse ourselves in the impressive technological abstractions we are constantly fed concerning missiles, bombs and warplanes. While children, especially boys, can share our fascination with this brilliant high-tech performance, we may be more inclined than they to block out--numb ourselves to--what happens at the other end of the weapons.

The young have less developed defense mechanisms and are consequently more vulnerable to unspoken currents having to do with death and danger. Children quickly incorporate such fear into their imaginative play, unable as yet to accept the finality of death or to grasp its relationship to tragedy.

George is thus able to imagine something that adults tend to suppress: The missiles in the Gulf War--ours or theirs--are not innocuous. They pose dangers not only to Iraqis and Israelis and American soldiers but to those of us back home as well.

George is also afraid that Iraqis will come over and get him. This fear, even if associated with previous anxieties and phobias so common in young children, finds parallels in our expanding adult fears of Iraqi-sponsored terrorists.

During the second week of the war, children became a national focus. Psychiatrists, psychologists and teachers--collectively designated "experts"--have been giving their opinions on how parents should deal with their children's anxieties and concerns. Their advice tends to be reasonable enough. Encourage the children to talk, to express their worries and their opinions. Reassure them--as does Mr. Rogers, the legendary friend of American children--that their parents will protect them from harm. And maintain one's daily routines, since children thrive on routine and worry when it is interrupted.

Inevitably, television has been enlisted, and there has been a quick emergence of programs in which children express their own concerns to panels of adults--always including teachers and psychologists, sometimes news correspondents, and usually a retired military officer.

On these programs, the questions asked by children have been more illuminating than the answers given: "Why do they have to have war?" "What happens if we lose?" "Is it scary over there?" "Who ends the war?" "Does it kill children?"

Adults on the panels offer general explanations that include the need to combat Saddam Hussein's evil, to defeat him and enable the war to come to a close. The explanations are interspersed with assurances of parental protection and of the war's being "faraway," therefore not dangerous to American children.

What is omitted is the part played by the United States in its decision to go to war and in the particular way it is fighting the war. While it may be pointed out that Hussein has killed children--during his invasion of Kuwait, for instance--I have heard no mention of our killing children during our bombing of Baghdad.

Helping children to cope with war is not just a technical procedure. It includes everything we say and do not say, everything we feel and do not feel, as we communicate through that extremely porous parent-child membrane. At both sides of the membrane, television images continue their barrage, but those images are changing. More and more the children are witnessing with us the suffering of human beings--frightened Americans awaiting Scud missile attacks in Saudi Arabia, Israelis wounded and killed by those missiles and Iraqis killed or wounded by American raids.

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