CHILDREN can’t be wrapped in cotton wool, but there is a real danger from overinformation, writes Lori Anderson
As a child I always thought I would make a good spy. I enjoyed the secret pleasure of listening in to adult conversations. My means of being privy to their careless whispers was my nightly possum snooze on the sofa whereby I would nap on an off, brought back into earthly consciousness only by the forbidden fruit of parental discourse.
I heard all sorts, let me tell you, most of it intriguing, some of it incomprehensible and on one occasion, downright terrifying. There I was in a preliminary pas de bas with the Sandman while my parents watched the Nine O’Clock News about a bombing in Belfast, when my mother uttered a few words she would live to regret about ‘The Troubles’: “It will be over here soon enough.” In a split second my little mind had projected countless images of bullets, bombs and balaclavas all descending on my neighbouring streets, a few seconds later I sat up crying and wailing: “We need to move. When can we move? Can we go to an English village? I’m not staying here.”
I was, literally, inconsolable and would not let it go for weeks. Every day I demanded of my mother why we had not yet made provisions to leave Scotland before “The Troubles” arrived? After all hadn’t she been the one to admit it was on its way? Every day when I came home from school and failed to see that a “For Sale” had been erected I offered my own eminently sensible solution: my mum and dad could stay here but I’d like to go and stay with my aunt and uncle in California, please. They could forward my pocket money by post.
All of this woe and childhood turmoil came back to me last week when reading about Kiki, the eight-year-old daughter of Nadia Sawalha, the actress and regular host of Loose Women. Little Kiki had had her sleep disturbed by her parents’ concerned chat about the Russian plane shot down by Turkey. As her mother explained on Loose Women, her husband Mark had been discussing the downing of the Russian plane without realising their daughter was listening. “I was like: ‘Mark, no she’s just dropping off to sleep’ But five minutes later I’m talking to him about Turkey right over her head.”
Today Kiki Sawalha, just like I was 40 years before, is anxious and fearful and has an appointment with a therapist. As Nadia Sawalha said: “I think we are really guilty of oversharing and have only just realised that it is causing real problems. Today, and this does make me sad, I’m taking (Kiki) for her first appointment to see somebody for anxiety. I think she has got a really vivid imagination. We talk a lot about the news, we have the newspapers all the time, and she has taken so much of it in. Her anxiety is about safety. They are like sponges.”
Children are like sponges and the information many have been soaking up in the past few weeks is grim and deeply disturbing. Childline, the phone line run by the NSPCC, said that they have received more calls in the days since the Paris attacks from children fearful of terrorist attacks than at any other time in recent years. One 12-year-old boy called to say that he had heard that ISIS was in the UK and planning a deadly attack: “I don’t feel safe anymore and I’m having nightmares.”
If I was seven years old again and slumbering on my parents’ sofa I certainly wouldn’t want to wake up to concerned chat about ISIS, beheadings and if, rather than when, terrorists next attack London. Children, like all of us, crave security and safety and while teenagers and adults can rationalise events, slot them into context and comfort themselves with statistics that insist they are at greater danger of being killed while driving to the corner shop than in a terrorist attack, young children cannot. I can only imagine how frazzled my young mind would have been if my father had attempted to assuage my fear of an IRA bomb by laughing it off and saying that I would be much more likely to come to harm crossing the road. I would never have left the house.
It seems to me that with young children the simplest option is to, where possible, keep them in the dark. Does the news really have to be on when they are playing around at lunchtime or dinner time? As for the Press, no-one wants a child to doggedly spell out the newspaper headlines and then ask what exactly “beheading” means. But a parent can only run interference against the dark side of the world for so long as there is always the smarter, more inquisitive, older children at school from whom all means of information, contorted or otherwise, is passed along, then the answer to any question about their personal safety can only be that: “yes, of course, they’ll be fine” and “no, no one is ever going to harm them”. There can be no room for caveats or odds of “millions, and millions to one”, at least not with me, as my mind always sought out the smallest possibility and focused on it until it expanded and it was all I could see.
I can’t remember how my parents finally convinced me that, despite what they said on the sofa weeks ago, “The Troubles” were not coming over here, as we certainly never moved and I wasn’t packed off to California sporting a “please look after this nervous nellie relative” tag. Perhaps, in the rush of information and emotions that assails the young, I simply forgot. Hopefully those anxious over our current “Troubles” will do so too.