Op-Ed

How do we help children cope with fear of nuclear war?

For the first time in decades, the news is filled with speculation about a possible nuclear war. There was President Trump’s bombastic address to the United Nations, in which he threatened to destroy North Korea, and his schoolboy exchange of taunts with that country’s dangerously capricious leader, Kim Jong Un. A quick glance at the headlines is enough to learn that the North’s foreign minister has declared a missile attack on the United States “inevitable,” or that Pyongyang intends to explode a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific.

Adults around the world are rightfully worried about nuclear war. Unless things change soon, children will be worried too.

In the 1980s, a spate of studies documented the effects of nuclear fear on children in journals of medicine, psychology and education. Researchers agreed that the worries began in early childhood and evolved through adolescence. For many kids in the U.S., fear of a nuclear holocaust was topped only by fear of their parents’ deaths. In the Soviet Union, those rankings were reversed.

The 1980s research confirms that even the very young are affected by events outside their immediate homes and communities. After the attacks on the World Trade Center, for instance, early childhood educators reported watching their young students repeatedly building towers and knocking them down. I still blame Bill Clinton for having to explain sexual harassment and oral sex to my 6-year-old daughter. (She’d heard about his scandal from a classmate.)

Childhood fear of nuclear war leaves a particularly lasting effect, as the researchers in the 1980s knew well — many of them had grown up in the 1950s, burdened with being the first generation to experience a childhood colored by the looming, very real possibility that we could blow ourselves up. I’m also of that generation, and I’ve been grateful that the children in my life have been spared facing the unthinkable possibility of nuclear holocaust. Until now.

My contemporaries and I share vivid memories of mushroom-cloud nightmares and daytime terror, inspired by the news we watched on our three channels of black-and-white television. Today, thanks to the proliferation of smartphones, tablets and other digital devices, children are more likely than ever to be exposed to the media’s take on world events. They’re going to need our help.

What should we do? It might be easier to say what we shouldn’t do. Namely, we shouldn’t adopt the 1950s model for coping — we shouldn’t deny that there is potential for devastation or feed children the myth that they can protect themselves from a nuclear strike.

In my elementary school, we practiced lining up in halls. One friend remembers that kids living 10 minutes away from school could run home to be with their parents. Most remember duck-and-cover drills, popularized by a short film produced for schools featuring a cheery theme song and Bert the Turtle, the animated ambassador for the government’s official instructions for what kids should do when the U.S. was nuked by the Soviet Union. Children were supposed to crouch under their desks and cover their heads like Bert withdrawing into his shell.

The drills and the film did nothing to assuage our fears. They denied the reality of the devastation we knew was caused in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. Besides, if we could survive a nuclear attack by getting under our desks, why were people building fall-out shelters stocked with months’ worth of canned goods?

Now more than ever, we shouldn’t deny that nuclear war could happen. Given the impulsiveness and volatility of Kim Jong Un and our own president, it’s simply not a given that cooler heads will prevail.

We can, however, tell children truthfully that nuclear war is unlikely. We can tell them that, like us, most people don’t want it to happen. And we can reassure them that people in our government and in other governments around the world are working hard to prevent it.

We can also let kids know that they are not alone, and that they can come to us with their worries. This may sound obvious, but the children described in the 1980s studies often didn’t share their fears with adults. Many felt isolated and helpless. This combination of fear, helplessness and isolation can lead to despair, apathy, cynicism or alienation — destructive attributes in individuals, and a threat to democracy if prevalent in the population.

Finally, while talking with our children is crucial, it isn’t enough. Kids need to see adults take action. We can join protests or organize them. We can write letters and sign petitions. We can align ourselves with organizations that work to prevent war. Even if we ourselves are feeling weary, frightened or overwhelmed, children need to see that we care enough about them, and the world, to face the terror of nuclear war and do everything we can to prevent it.

Susan Linn is a psychologist, a lecturer on psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the author of “Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood.”

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