If you, like me, were a child of the 70s and 80s and the cold war period, you may well recall becoming slowly more terrified at the thought of nuclear war and the subsequent destruction of society. I vividly remember reading ‘When the Wind Blows’ by Raymond Briggs, watching ‘Threads’ on TV and hearing Nena’s ‘99 Red Balloons’ and Ultravox’s ‘Dancing, With Tears In My Eyes’ on the radio. Collectively they instilled a fear in me and a near certainty that we were on a one way journey to total destruction...I was sure that nuclear war was going to happen and that we were all going to die. Indeed, a common joke in my prep school was, “What do you want to be if you grow up?”.
Research on the effects of the nuclear threat on children is chilling. At the end of the 1950s, 60% of American children reported having nightmares about nuclear war. By 1979, 70% of interviewees the same age felt sure of an attack. Perhaps the strongest cultural reflection of this fear was the television film ‘The Day After’, released in 1983. The first half of the film introduced the conflict between NATO forces; the second half depicted the consequences of a Soviet bomb dropped on Kansas City, Missouri. Stripped of symbolism and superheroes, this was a fact-based depiction of what humans could expect in the event of a nuclear attack. An estimated 100 million Americans watched the film when it aired, ranking ‘The Day After’ the highest-rated TV film to this day.
Prevailing research around Cold War child psychology recommended that families faced with the threat of nuclear violence should foster early and honest communication with their children, and present ways to confront their fears, express them, transform them into positive action, and act in the service of humanity.
The fear of nuclear war and mutually assured destruction may have receded (for now), however, to some extent it has been replaced for the current school population with growing fears about climate change. This fear is not entirely being helped by political uncertainty and a lack of trust in what the media (both traditional and internet based) is telling us. Young people are left wondering if it is the fault of air travel, or perhaps cars, or are the farmers to blame or maybe our meat eating habits? Should we eat avocados or drink almond milk? Ought we to become vegan or vegetarian? Because they have been (rightly) taught to question the integrity and motives of the media, they are left not knowing what to believe and consequently, don’t know how to act.
What appears to be essential is that young people should not be left alone with their fears. According to Harvard professor Dr William R Beardslee, it is vital that they make contact with others who are willing to hear them and to share their concerns. We need to tell children the truth, but in ways that they can understand and perhaps try to relate it to their local environment as well as further afield (it’s not just polar bears that are at risk). We should aim to empower young people, but not exploit them. Show them that they have a powerful voice, but without putting the burden of solving the problem on them. Fundamentally I believe that it is important to help them connect with and play in nature. It seems to me unlikely that children who don’t spend time in nature and see its beauty will care enough to want to protect it.
It is crucial to consider the emotional wellbeing of the child before you speak. For them, as for us, this crisis is scary and depressing, especially for young people who see their future slipping from their grasp. With younger children, be truthful, but avoid scaremongering. With older children and teens, be with them in their grief and anger, and create supportive spaces where they can express this. Encourage them to research and take positive action (helping with the recycling). They might use internet based resources such as Kids Climate Action to enable this.
Above all, I think that it might be time to start talking once again...
“Ninety-nine red balloons
Floating in the summer sky
Panic bells, it's red alert
There's something here from somewhere else
The war machine springs to life
Opens up one eager eye
Focusing it on the sky
Where ninety-nine red balloons go by”
Nena - 99 Red Balloons
John F Gilmour