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Are the kids all right?

The advice offered to parents and teachers on helping children cope in the aftermath of 11 September could do more harm than good.

Helene Guldberg

Topics Politics

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According to some child development experts, children who watched the harrowing TV images of the Twin Towers collapsing on 11 September might be feeling emotionally traumatised – and if we don’t turn our attention to helping them cope, the long-term effects could be damaging in the extreme.

The UK government – always happy to codify advice – has published guidelines for schools on how to help children understand the terrorist attacks and to cope with their aftermath (though why it published the guidelines on Friday 19 October, just as children and teachers in the UK were leaving for their week-long mid-term break, is anyone’s guess).

According to psychologist Dr Mallory Wober, it is ‘vital we are sympathetic to [children] now, in case it becomes like a landmine buried in their minds that can explode years later’ (1) – while the UK Department for Education and Skills (DFES) warns that ‘children and young people may have generalised fears triggered by the attacks, fear of further terrorist attacks or may have been upset by the images they have seen on television’ (2).

So are children suffering emotional trauma post-11 September?

Despite all the concern, there is a distinct lack of evidence that children have been adversely affected or distressed by recent events. Rather, the preoccupation with children’s emotional welfare seems to be a case of adults projecting their own fears and insecurities on to kids.

A colleague’s 11-year-old brother described how his classmates discussed among themselves (in gory detail, as many adults did) what they had watched on TV on 11 September: ‘We were saying to each other: “Did you see those people jumping out of the windows?!”’ But the horror of the event didn’t stop them inventing a new playground game called ‘Blow up bin Laden’: ‘We started screaming and running every time a plane passed. We were only joking, but the teachers asked us to pray for peace and stop messing about.’

Schools educational psychologist Alistair Hewitt has seen no evidence that the children he deals with are preoccupied with 11 September or the events that followed. Life carries on ‘pretty, much as normal’, he says. And his own two young children ‘were curious, of course, and asked loads of questions at the time – but, no, it hasn’t affected them’.

My bother-in-law, Derek Allen, says his three sons have been ‘very matter-of-fact’ about the terrorist attacks: ‘They were taken aback when the towers collapsed, and asked a lot of questions about it, but otherwise they get on with life as usual.’ Recently, a local girl was killed in a car accident and ‘the boys have been far more concerned with that – in particular why she wasn’t wearing a seat-belt – than with anything they’ve seen on the news’. My seven-year-old nephew Jordan expressed concern about the bombing of Afghanistan: ‘I saw this boy on the news from Afghanistan and his whole family had died because of bombs or because they didn’t have food and he was frightened.’

Of course children are not untouched by what they see on the news, and parents and teachers have had to answer some difficult questions over the past six weeks. But children often see harrowing images – and the fact is, they cope.

Generations of children have been subjected to terrible TV images – they have seen victims of war, starvation, natural disasters. An image that sticks in my mind from my childhood in Norway was when the Alexander Kielland accommodation platform sunk in the North Sea in 1980, after one of its five columns broke off in a storm – killing 123 people on board. I still remember the look of horror and grief on the faces of adults when the names of all the young men killed were listed on TV.

Some images and events make a lasting impression on children. But children’s reactions to terrible images are formed more by the reactions of the adults around them than by the images themselves.

Studies looking at the effect of early traumatic experiences on children – that is, events experienced directly by children rather than just images they have seen – have found that neither the severity of the event nor the age of the child at the time can help us predict whether the child will experience behavioural or emotional problems later on. As child development expert Rudolph Schaffer points out:

‘It has become apparent that there is no direct relationship between age and the impact which experience has on the individual, that young children are not necessarily more vulnerable even to quite severe adversities than older children, and that considerable variability exists in long-term outcome.’ (3)

The one variable that does help to predict how a traumatic event might impact on children is how the adults around them cope with it. If an adult breaks down and seems unable to comprehend what is going on, this is likely to have a detrimental impact on the children in his or her care. So surely what could be most damaging to children post-11 September is not the actual TV images, but adults’ responses. As Jay Mathews pointed out in the Washington Post (4) on the huge number of holiday cancellations post-11 September: ‘What young people will learn from the decision to cancel their travel plans is “when bad things happen, hide under the rug”.’

There may be little evidence that children are traumatised by images, but it is now assumed that even when children appear to be coping, underneath it all they might in fact be overcome by fear. But surely treating children as if they cannot cope, even when they seem to be, is more likely to undermine their confidence and make them less likely to cope with difficult events and images?

The UK government admits that ‘teachers, who know their own pupils, are most likely to recognise any uncharacteristic behaviour and are best placed to decide how to deal with them’ – but it still felt compelled to issue its guidelines on helping children cope with the images of the past six weeks. (5) And teachers’ trade unions, local authorities, psychiatric and counselling institutions all seem to be bombarding parents and teachers with official advice about helping children cope post-11 September. Why?

According to the DFES, the demand is coming from teachers themselves, who apparently are desperately seeking advice on how to help children who may be traumatised. But it is hardly surprising – when just about every aspect of the curriculum is now prescribed by the government – that teachers feel impotent to use their own know-how and nous.

This is one of the biggest problems with the plethora of advice being offered to teachers and parents. Constant expert advice on just about every aspect of child-rearing is ultimately disabling, stripping us of our common sense and teaching parents and teachers not to cope on their own.

Much of the guidance issued in relation to 11 September is just common sense. So experts recommend again and again that information given to children should be ‘age appropriate, handled gently, and explained in terms children understand’. The National Union of Teachers website (6) advises: ‘In responding to pupils’ need for explanation of the events, teachers should assess pupils’ level of understanding and emotional maturity, prior to deciding on how much information is appropriate.’ Do parents and teachers really need to be told such basic information?

But then, some of the ‘expert’ advice verges on the moronic. ‘One way you could explain it’, says Bennett Leverthal, director of child and adolescent psychology at the University of Chicago, is that ‘there are people at school who misbehave, and they don’t use civil ways to solve things, they fight, and that’s wrong. But, explain to them that their friends aren’t terrorists’ (7).

Harold Fishbein, a child psychologist at the University of Cincinnati, advises parents to tell children that ‘yes, everyone is at risk for something like this to happen to them, but the risk is extremely small’. Is this really meant to allay children’s fears? Perhaps we should also tell them that ‘yes, they are at risk of being abducted, murdered, struck by lightening, contracting anthrax, leprosy, but the risk is extremely small’?

The reality is, you cannot prescribe how to communicate with children. There is no correct script. Parents and teachers, not ‘experts’, are best placed to find explanations that make sense to the children they know, love and understand.

Helene Guldberg has a doctorate in child development and teaches developmental psychology for the Open University.

Read on:

Growing up scared, by Jennie Bristow

Scared – or scarred for life? by Chris Gilligan

spiked-issues: After 11 September

(1) Trouble on the home front as fears haunt families, Guardian, 14 October 2001

(2) ‘Guidance after the events of 11 September’, DFES. Click here to download a copy of this document in .pdf format

(3) H Rudolph Schaffer, ‘The early experience assumption: Past, present, and future’, International Journal of Behavioral Development, vol 24 no 1, pp5-14

(4) Cancelling school trips is a bit extreme, Washington Post, 2 October 2001

(5) ‘Guidance after the events of 11 September’, DFES. Click here to download a copy of this document in .pdf format

(6) See the policies section of the National Union of Teachers website

(7) Talking to your children: how to explain the disaster, ABC News, 12 September 2001

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics

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