Air raid sirens are not a normal part of childhood, and this frightening sound will always remain with any child in a war zone. Most readers will not have experienced this dread.
Some of you will talk about tucking under desks or lining up against walls for nuclear attack practice. Families with money and houses built bomb shelters in their back yards. Black and yellow signs on buildings and subways pointed to bomb shelter areas.
We took home large posters from my school that gave detailed illustrations regarding protecting ourselves if Russia attacked with an atom bomb. Yes, it was Russia even then.
We were all issued dog tags with our name, birthdate, and religion on them and always instructed to wear them around our necks. It never occurred to me that they would use it for identifying my dead body in the event of an attack. After all these years, I have no idea where mine is, but I remember wearing them.
Those were upsetting times that students tried to see as common as fire drills, but they weren’t; it was preparation for destruction, disappearing in a flash. We had so little concern (forget any fear) because our teachers modeled the calm behavior that we then incorporated into our thinking. If they weren’t afraid, why should we be, was our attitude. No parents in my neighborhood ever brought up the topic and dutifully hung up the posters as though they were artwork.
No one talked to us about death and destruction, only that we were expected to act a certain way and things would be OK. But, if they were going to be “OK,” why did we need those dog tags or the posters? The question never entered our minds, seemingly.
How many of you sat in your living room with all the drapes drawn, daring not to whisper a word as the local air raid warden made rounds? As a very young child, my family did, and I can still recall, what it was like to have a rudimentary, pump-action fire extinguisher in the hallway outside our apartment in a poorly constructed wooden building. Ironically, the “fire extinguisher” never contained water.
The invasion in Ukraine is disturbing to us adults, but for the children, what is it, and how will it affect them? I heard one little boy on TV say, “They’re going to kill us.” The saying we often use is only the strong survive, but overt survival doesn’t tell the deeper story and any damage done.
Incredibly, some research points toward children being more resistant to after-war effects. “Yet many practitioners recognized that even amidst armed conflicts or recent mass displacement, children and adolescents exhibit agency that is an important resource for coping, adjustment, and resilience.”
But as opposed to wars in the past where the military were the primary targets, wars now are considered low intensity where “under these…circumstances civilians, including children, as well as the infrastructure of the society become targets.” The entire social fabric of society is damaged in its entirety, leaving some of the citizens terrorized. How will this affect the future of that generation and the generation they are raising?
Exposure to war violence is viewed as intergenerational, and its effects may play out in many areas; violence, mental health issues, and physical health. Children enmeshed in the turbulence of a war zone may be desensitized or immune to violence. Can anyone dare to predict how they will be affected?
Much of the research has mentioned PTSD, primarily in domestic situations, but there is a lack of longitudinal study with children and war experiences at this point. We know trauma can affect brain development, and we might conclude that these children could have stunted growth in some areas of their brains, personalities, and ability to relate to others.
Right now, what would seem to be the one thing that may be most helpful for children in these situations? I think it might be what it was during our atom bomb drills; parental reassurance and support, as well as teachers who model appropriate behavior and provide extra help when needed.
We can’t stop unconscionable, murderous dictators, who are more criminal than politicians, but we can help our kids and adults. Continuing to plan for a more promising future, maintaining close social connections, and caring for each other are three means to a brighter future.
Holding a position of hope is one power we retain in the direst of situations.