Kids say they're worried about events in the Gulf


January 15, 1991|By Gerri Kobren

All over the country, in all the grades in school, children seem to recognize the awful possibilities of war.

"There's a general sense of apprehension in the country," said Frederic Medway, professor of psychology at the University of South Carolina. "To think that would not affect our children is naive."

A recent nationwide survey of schoolchildren revealed "a feelinof fright and concern," said Ernest Fleishman, Ph.D., director of education at Scholastic, Inc., which included a Persian Gulf questionnaire in its November publications.

Fifty-four percent of the children said they were "scared." A thirof them were also "angry" or "confused" about having American soldiers in the Middle East.

It would be odd if it were otherwise. Images of war come at schoolchildren from all angles -- in social studies and current events classes, in the nightly news, in the headlines, in the conversation of their families.

This is not the innocent generation of the '40s, for whom war was a glorious cause, said James McGee, Ph.D., director of psychology at Sheppard Pratt Hospital. These are kids who see death in its awful finality every day in the local news. And their parents, reared with the searing images of Vietnam, are worried about another round of body counts.

"In a war, people die. When you peel away everything else, that is the basic concern," he said. "Kids now, including the younger ones, get more exposure to death and are more uptight and frightened by the prospect of war."

They are also confused, experts said. The geography, the morality, even the reality of the situation are not really clear.

Preschoolers can't figure out what's true and what's fantasy; TV images of soldiers in the sand seem to be a kind of desert movie, with Saddam Hussein cast as the evil Darth Vader, according to Ellen Galinsky, co-author of "The Pre-School Years" and co-president of the Families and Work Institute in New York.

"Another issue is that parents tell children to solve their problems using words; now the children are asking why the adults can't solve this problem using words," she says.

And, according to Dr. Fleishman, some of the children wrote on the Scholastic survey that they were afraid bombs would be dropping in America; one little girl, age 10, said she'd be at home today, hiding from the bombs.

"That may reflect that the information is not really clear, from families or the media; kids may not understand what they are hearing," Dr. Medway said.

"The second part of it is that this is a generation that has not experienced conflict for 20 years. Children look to their peers and parents to help define the situation, to know what they should be feeling. But this is a brand new event, and they don't know how to feel."

In spite of all that, however, significant numbers of children do not seem to be having the eating and sleeping disorders, the moodiness or misbehavior that usually bring them to the attention of mental health professionals, nor do experts expect them to.

Most people -- and children especially -- tend to deal with anxiety by denying it, putting it out of their awareness, said Dr. Lois Flaherty, head of the division of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Maryland Medical Center.

"That serves a protective function in that it lets us go about our lives," she said.

Children whose parents or siblings are on military duty in the Gulf may have a harder time pushing their fears to a back burner, some experts said, but they, too, seem to be going about their lives without seeking help for emotional problems, according to Col. Calvin Neptune, social work consultant to the Army Surgeon General.

"Fear about harm to a family member will create a certain amount of tension in the family, and children are really good at being lightning rods to pick up that tension," he said.

Mental health and family support staff are, in fact, watching for symptoms in families left behind by Desert Shield soldiers.

So far, however, he said he has "picked up nothing to indicate that there is a groundswell of pathology. I think that's because people are healthy; the normal human condition is to be flexible and deal with adversity."

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