Young lives under the gun

It's not just politicians who are talking about Saddam Hussein. As Jack O'Sullivan and Rosa Prince discover, children are finding it hard to cope with the threat of war

YOU could hear them talking about Saddam aboard HMS Belfast yesterday - the children taken by their parents to the Second World War cruiser docked by London Bridge, as a half-term treat. But war is no longer a history lesson for youngsters, or part of an outing to a museum. Suddenly, the threat of it is closer to home, and children are becoming fearful.

Among the youngsters on the Belfast were Robert Piper, 12, and his brother Thomas, nine. They do not want a war with Iraq. "I have heard that there are soldiers in the Gulf," said Robert. "They have gone over the desert to stop Saddam Hussein blowing us up. When I heard that I was worried it would come here."

With newspapers and television headlines full of the latest developments in the Gulf, children have started to hear more and more mention of war, of bombing, and perhaps most frightening of all, of germ warfare.

While adults may find all the details and the political brinkmanship hard to follow, children find it baffling. They catch snippets of news, hear talk of a despot, and have no concept of distance. To them, Iraq is close at hand.

But for children familiar with action-packed films and cartoons, the idea of war can be also exciting. Children like the Pipers are fascinated by it, which was why their father Chris took them to the Belfast.

Anne Cullimore, from Crawley in Surrey, brought her children Matthew, eight, and Hannah, six, to see the ship after they had been talking about the Gulf crisis. "My husband and my mother-in-law were talking about the Gulf and Matthew overheard them," she said. "My mother-in-law started to tell him about her own experiences in the Second World War and he was interested, so I brought them here today".

For parents used to awkward questions, the military build-up in the Gulf can nevertheless pose a particularly difficult issue for discussion. Carolyn Douglas is director of Exploring Parenthood, which operates a helpline for parents seeking advice on what to tell their children, and believes: "There is an almost hedonistic, sexualised excitement around the idea that we're going to get Saddam Hussein. But for some children, this type of excitement is also a shield against being frightened."

Nat Jenkins, from Clapham, south London, is 13 years old and says war is very much on the minds of his friends. "We don't generally discuss the Gulf with teachers," he says. "But we do talk to each other about it quite a lot. It comes up in conversation. It is becoming such a big thing. There is a lot of talk about Saddam Hussein having nuclear weapons and germ warfare, and whether he would use them here. We can't really predict what is going to happen but you can't spend your time getting freaked out about it."

There is, however, an air of curious anticipation in Nat's voice as he discusses the prospects of war. "I was pretty young but I remember seeing the original Gulf war," he recalls. "My mum told me to watch it on the television and I remember thinking 'wow!'"

"The crucial mix that parents need to achieve is "constancy, consistency and containment," says Carolyn Douglas. "Grown-ups have to act grown-up and contain their own anxieties and their bullish behaviour. As with sex education, it's about telling children as much as they can cope with and not letting rip with your own fears. So you may not offer full information about what is happening but you make sure that they have a few facts that a child can hang on to. If children are given no knowledge then they will imagine that the bombs are coming tonight, that they are going to get anthrax up their noses immediately."

Typical of the fearful child is Lydia Whittaker, 11, from Kentish Town in north London. "At school," she says, "some stupid children have been going around saying, 'Did you know World War Three's going to break out on Friday?' They say Saddam Hussein already has some weapons. If they bomb Iraq won't he be tempted to use them? It sort of frightens me."

Awareness of problems in the Gulf starts young. "From about five, many children know something is happening," says Carolyn Douglas. "But the seven to 11-year-olds ask the most profound questions. You should be prepared to deal with questions such as: Is Saddam evil? Could this be the end of the world? Are lots of people going to get killed?

"So you give them realistic reassurance. You tell them that no one knows if people will be killed. We certainly hope not. The UN man is trying to sort it out. But this thing is a bit tricky. It's wise to use language which is quite light but not lying.

Fear is, however, probably greatest, among the children of service personnel. "They are bombarded by the media attention," says Ray Swindley, director of social work for the Soldiers', Sailors' and Airmen's Families Association. "The children are fully aware of what is going on. They hear dire predictions. And if they are with their mother, then she is anxious as well. So they have to cope with that too. You have to help them by acknowledging the stresses that they are under. You can't just say everything will be fine. At least if they are in a garrison, then everyone supports each other."

Those who care for children remember how some reacted during the last conflict in 1991. "They were worried that they were going to be attacked themselves, that a bomb was going to land on their house," recalls one junior school teacher. "Children have no concept of distance. And they get worried about what happens to children in other places. Sometimes, they can also become very aggressive, gung-ho, not understanding the consequences of violence. In many ways they mimic their parents' views. Last time, it became difficult for Middle Eastern children. They felt threatened and were bullied."

Chris Piper is convinced that it is vital to talk to his two sons. "When we see it on the news," he says, "we have a chat about it. It is good to explain it to them. I like Robert and Thomas to have an unbiased view as far as possible."

Marshall Corwin understands the need to give children reliable information. He is deputy editor of Newsround, BBC TV's weekday service for children. "In the last Gulf war," he recalls, "we did a special programme explaining the reasons behind the conflict. We looked at the range of Saddam's Scuds and explained that children here would not be affected. And we examined the impact of the war on children of all sides. We don't unduly alarm children, but we think there are very few issues that we cannot raise with them."

Carolyn Douglas believes it may be necessary for adults to manage children's exposure to television. "Some children can become obsessional," she says. "With them, one might say that between, say, 4pm and 5pm, you will listen to their worries but outside those hours you don't want to talk about the conflict and that the child should forget about it. This is one way to release children from feeling guilty. It lets them get on with their lives."

Exploring Parenthood's helpline is 0171 221 6681

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
The Queen and the letter sent to Charlie
Arts and Entertainment
Eurovision Song Contest 2015
EurovisionGoogle marks the 2015 show
Two lesbians hold hands at a gay pride parade.
peopleIrish journalist shares moving story on day of referendum
Arts and Entertainment
<b>Kathryn Williams</b>
When I was supporting Ray La Montagne I was six months pregnant. He had been touring for a year and he was exhausted and full of the cold. I was feeling motherly, so I would leave presents for him and his band: Tunnock's Tea Cakes, cold remedies and proper tea. Ray seemed painfully shy. He hardly spoke, hardly looked at you in the face. I felt like a dick speaking to him, but said "hi" every day. </p>
He was being courted by the same record company who had signed me and subsequently let me go, and I wanted him to know that there were people around who didn't want anything from him. At the Shepherds Bush Empire in London, on the last night of the tour, Ray stopped in his set to thank me for doing the support. He said I was a really good songwriter and people should buy my stuff. I was taken aback and felt emotionally overwhelmed. Later that year, just before I had my boy Louis, I was l asleep in bed with Radio 4 on when Louis moved around in my belly and woke me up. Ray was doing a session on the World Service. </p>
I really believe that Louis recognised the music from the tour, and when I gave birth to him at home I played Ray's record as something that he would recognise to come into the world with. </p>
booksKathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
Liz Kendall played a key role in the introduction of the smoking ban
newsLiz Kendall: profile
Life and Style
techPatent specifies 'anthropomorphic device' to control media devices
The PM proposed 'commonsense restrictions' on migrant benefits
voicesAndrew Grice: Prime Minister can talk 'one nation Conservatism' but putting it into action will be tougher
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

    £40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

    Guru Careers: Software Developer

    £35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

    Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

    £25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

    Day In a Page

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?