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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