Dilemma's
Jenny's normally happy-go-lucky 11-year-old son coped well with his grandmother's recent death, but trouble in Iraq has made him petrified about the idea of nuclear war. He's rung in tears from school and once said he felt suicidal. The head advises a psychiatrist but Jenny is uncertain, as he seems rational and happy between these bouts of terror

Poor Jenny. No doubt she thought the worst questions she could be asked by her child would be: "Mum, where do babies come from?" But worse, far worse, than even those maddening questions: "But mum, when can I have a video/hamster/dog?" is the question: "But mum, will there be a nuclear war?" It's enough to break any parent's heart. Most of us with children feel guilty enough about bring them into such a risky world but we feel distracted by anxiety when a white-faced child paddles into the bedroom in the early hours demanding reassurance that shortly we won't all be blown to smithereens. The answer: "The chances are so slight as to be negligible" just isn't good enough. The child wants to hear the answer: "No, I promise you."

If the child is young enough a parent might be able to get away with it. But eleven? Not really. Eleven-year-olds watch the news. To make matters worse, it's very difficult to inject confidence and authority of reassurance into our voices when often we feel pretty wobbly on the subject ourselves. And poor Jenny has got another problem - an oafish headmaster who clearly runs for the psychiatrist every time he can't handle something. Any headmaster with any common-sense would recommend that if the boy ever feels miserable at school he go and see him for tea and biscuits at once. Only if his distress seemed ongoing and relentless should the head then perhaps recommend a child counsellor, and leave the psychiatrist as a last resort. And how would the child feel if, after a few major panic attacks, he was deemed to be in need of professional help, help that his parents were incapable of giving him?

Any headmaster with common-sense would spot this condition as a very normal one anyway. Several adults I know - and children - have been through exactly the same common stage, particularly just pre-teen, when they suddenly seem to realise that they can't take life - or, more importantly, their parents' lives - for granted, and that soon they'll be growing up and have to fend for themselves. Acute anxiety about nuclear war can be seen as a kind of separation anxiety.

Why has Jenny's son suddenly got this fear? Partly because of his grandmother's recent death. If it was Jenny's mother who died he might have seen his mother sobbing into her pillow and suddenly imagined what he would feel like when his own mum died. It's bad enough when you're middle-aged, but the fear of a mother dying when you're 11 is truly harrowing. Who would take him to school? Who would cook his meals? Quite apart from her emotional support being withdrawn there are all the practical considerations as well. Jenny's son's fear isn't really about nuclear war at all.

So what's the answer? Explanations won't work, any more than my cheerful promise to my son, when he'd freaked out after watching a film about nuclear holocaust on television, that if the bomb went off we'd all go together.

Since his real anxiety is about separation, just for a few months, at least, Jenny must reassure her son that she's always close, perhaps take him to and pick him up from school if she can, give him a phone-card so he can contact her when he feels scared, and give him a diary of her day's appointments so he feels more secure. After a while, his fears will almost certainly vanish - and with no need for a psychiatrist at all.

It's good to talk

I am aged 25 and at the age of 12 I had exactly the same fears as your son. I was petrified of the prospect of a nuclear war and would lie in bed at night convinced that the noise of aeroplanes flying above were nuclear bombs. I was completely obsessed by the idea but did not feel able to talk to anybody about it as I felt my fear was irrational as all my friends and family did not seem to care about the thought of a nuclear war. I realise now that it had to a lot to do with suddenly realising that at some point I was going to die, and it scared me witless. I got over my fear, but, like your son, with all the news at the moment about America it brought back the memories of the terror I used to feel. I think that it is a good thing that your son is able to talk to you about this, instead of bottling it up. Maybe like me he will come to terms with his fear, although at that time in your life, dying is a very very difficult thing to come to terms with.

Louisa Gill, Orpington

Do something productive

I am 14, and I once had an experience similar to Jenny's son. I was about 11 at the time also, but I hadn't recently lost a close relative or anything like that. Whenever I thought of nuclear war happening, I was so frightened that everyone I knew would be killed, that maybe I would be the only one left.

If it is a real concern, and not a spin-off of the death of his grandmother, then he could go to a library and learn why a nuclear war is unlikely in the foreseeable future, or he could join an organisation to prevent a nuclear war; do something productive.

Edward Coulson (14)

Mussleburgh, Midlothian

Love and reassurance

Jenny's son probably has a fear of loss due to his grandmother's death. My son suffered a similar phobia following a period of emotional upheaval. If I were Jenny I would consider psychiatric help - but only as a last resort. Lots of love and reassurances helped my son through his fears - which at times were almost overwhelming. He was obsessed with mushroom clouds, radioactivity and death. It did pass - and now his main concern is whether he can get a pair of designer trainers for Christmas!

Gill Chapman, Pontypridd

Look at the facts

I have recently experienced similar phobias about nuclear war. I used to become frightened and depressed every time I considered the possibility of nuclear war. But I had a long and rational talk with my mother and reviewed the following facts:

1. If a country, eg Iraq, did drop a nuclear bomb on us, we would retaliate very strongly.

2. Saddam Hussein - or any other world power trying to drop a bomb on us - would not be stupid enough to do so, due to the retaliation.

My verdict is: don't worry, there is a 99.9 per cent chance that there would not be a nuclear war.

Alex (13), son of Gill (above)

Strength is needed

My eldest son was six when he went through a similar phase of anxiety about death. My husband died suddenly when he was four and he then became very close to my father who died about 18 months later of cancer.

My son would not let me out of his sight, worried constantly that I and his brother would die if he couldn't be near us. He was very anxious at school and became almost hysterical if I was even the tiniest bit late picking him up.

I spoke to friends about it and one suggested going to family therapy sessions. I went to one session which made me very uncomfortable and I would personally not want to go through again. There were six therapists behind a two-way mirror and one in the room with me and my two sons. I found the whole situation gruelling. I do not think it helped us and I never went again.

I instinctively felt that my son was terrified that all the people he was close to were dying and that his little brother and I were to be next. Somehow he felt responsible. At the time, I was feeling very vulnerable and insecure and sad having lost my husband and father in a short time. What I needed to do for him was be very strong, become the invincible Supermum who would not die and would prevent his brother from dying. As soon as I made that decision my behaviour became more confident. I would tell him often that I would not die whilst he was away from me. In a very short time his fears became far more manageable, only surfacing occasionally.

Rosie Ellis, Somerset

NEXT WEEK'S PROBLEM: CHRISTMAS CLASH

Dear Virginia,

I'm 22 and this summer I finished my degree course at university. I'm living at home at the moment but my mother and uncle - I never see my father - gave me enough money for me to get a mortgage on a flat and I'll be moving in soon. The problem is that my mother said she'd miss me but at least I'd always be back for birthdays and Christmas - but this Christmas I was planning to spend my first Christmas away from home with my girlfriend at her parents'. I do love my mum, but what should I do? I know she'll be really upset if I tell her.

Yours sincerely,

Max

Comments are welcome, and everyone who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a Dynagrip 50 ballpen from Paper:Mate. Please send any relevant personal experiences or comments to me at the Features Department, The Independent, 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London, E14 5DL; fax 0171-293-2182, by Tuesday morning. And if you have any dilemmas of your own you would like to share, let me know.

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