Tell Children the Truth about Terror

Tell Children the Truth about Terror

Interviewer: Oliver Bantle, Süddeutsche Zeitung, October 2001 What effects can televised pictures of the terrorist attacks in the US and the war in Afghanistan have on children’s minds?

Miller: These images were not traumatic in the true sense of the word because they did not threaten our actual physical existence. But in all those who were beaten and humiliated in childhood they can reactivate suppressed anxieties and bodily memories of traumatic experiences they went through very early in life.

So children at the receiving end of corporal punishment experience their parents as “assailants”?

These acts of terrorism make us realize what one- or two-year-old children go through (and deeply repress) when without any warning they are suddenly seized and beaten by the parents they love, even if the punishment is “mild” and called spanking. Infants cannot understand why this should have happened to them. They are bewildered, horrified, totally helpless. The whole world comes tumbling down around their ears, they have no idea what will happen next. For a small fragile baby spanking can be as frightening as an earthquake for an adult who has a fully developed brain and can make sense of what is happening to him. His body stores away those emotions, but because they are repressed so thoroughly they are not easily brought back to the surface again, are inaccessible to the conscious memory.

How can children come to terms with pictures of burning skyscrapers and people jumping out of the windows?

By expressing their feelings and seeing that others understand them. Painting, drawing, and talking to others can all be very helpful in this process.

What can adults do to help?

Parents can help by taking their children’s fears and anxieties seriously, listening to them, and answering their questions truthfully rather than evasively. Children often understand the truth faster than adults because, unlike adults, they are not yet used to disguising their knowledge by theories.

How can adults make such events understandable for children?

We must tell them the truth, however difficult that may be. Such honest exchanges can deepen and enrich our relationships with our children. We must tell them that they have a right to our respect, that they must never be beaten or humiliated. And if they have been, then it is because their parents did not know what they were doing. Such ignorance is something we can apologize to them for, here and now. What these dreadful attacks have taught us is that people who can do such terrible things to others must have experienced such terrible things in their own childhood. No one is born evil.

So violence is not innate but acquired?

Yes, absolutely. We learn violence very early from our own parents, by imitating them. People humiliated by physical “correction” in childhood have had to suppress their anger at such treatment, unless they had someone to turn to for help. But our bodies store the memories of such brutality. In later life these victims are driven by their unconscious memories to avenge themselves mercilessly on innocent people.

How should adults react when they see their children at play and realize they are identifying with the Arab terrorists and putting them in the same category as a figure like Superman?

The people who produce such films were themselves subjected to corporal punishment very early in life. Fantasies of omnipotence and delusions of superhuman power (Superman) are devices they draw upon to fend off their true feelings of hurt and helplessness. Identifying with terrorists has a similar function. It is an expression of the child’s rebellion against the obstinate heedlessness or possibly even the cruelty of his or her parents. But children always love their parents and so they will never accuse them directly.

How should we react when we see our children pretending to be “terrorists”?

If parents adopt a more mature attitude and stop vaunting physical punishment as a parenting method, if they act like respectful partners to their children, then the children will not need to play at being terrorists. They are happy to be able to engage in peaceful, trusting communication with their parents rather than finding themselves in a constant state of hostility. I am not only referring here to those extreme cases that are generally acknowledged to represent child abuse. They are merely the tip of the iceberg. I am talking about the form of violence widely used in families as a “legitimate” method of upbringing and accepted as such by over 90 percent of the population of this world. It is amazing that the churches have never spoken out against this belief and this practice…

What marks will the present events leave on the minds of today’s children when they grow up?

The events themselves will not necessarily have any lasting negative effect on the children’s later development. Indeed, if they have experienced those events in the company of enlightened, empathic adults and have been able to talk to them freely about what they have seen, this can even lead to a consolidation and differentiation of their emotional responses. A child’s body knows everything it has been through. But the only language at its command is the development of physical symptoms.

Why is it important to talk about these things openly?

Feelings we can put a name to and feelings we share with others are easier to categorize and control. If parents are willing to concede that physical correction inflicted on small children is dangerous and may have disastrous consequences, this will give the child the confirmation it needs to find its way in the world and to reject the belief in things that have no logical foundations. It is a source of reassurance.

Can violence and war ever be prevented?

We urgently need a law prohibiting all the parents in this world from beating, smacking or spanking infants. If cruelty is inflicted on children at a time when their brains are not yet fully developed (the first three to five years), those children will later be determined to avenge themselves on society as a whole for the violence and brutality they have been subjected to, unless, that is, they have the good fortune of having what I call “helping witnesses” to turn to for help.

What can happen if children are left alone with the violence inflicted upon them?

Such helping witnesses are conspicuous by their absence in the childhood years of all the most horrifying dictators of the last century: Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Franco, Ceaucescu. For this reason (and many others) I am convinced that with such a law in 20 years human society would be free of terrorists and criminals. It would consist instead of responsible individuals capable of peaceful, non-violent communication because they were not beaten when they were small and not forced to grow up in an atmosphere of hostility.

That sounds very utopian.

This is not a hopelessly utopian vision but the logical consequence of knowledge that is already available but has yet to be widely disseminated. What that knowledge tells us is that traumata stored in the brain but denied by our conscious minds will always be visited on the next generation.