Last month’s column focused on ways in which parents and educators can resolve this year to help young folks understand and adapt to the current fearful economic decline. This month’s column will focus on a second current widespread fear—the international political tensions that could lead to war (or wars) in the Middle East.

Fear of War

Recognition/Response Brain Systems:

Our survival depends on a brain that can quickly recognize dangers and opportunities, and then unconsciously or consciously respond in a manner that’s appropriate to the challenge. Our brain is organized so that conscious recognition functions are principally processed in the sensory lobes in the back of our brain, and conscious responses in the frontal lobes.

Our emotion and attention systems process our initial arousal to, and focus on, dangers and opportunities that confront us. If our brain recognizes a threat as imminent and serious (such as something large approaching quickly), it activates automatic response systems—and we hurry across the street to avoid a rapidly approaching car. An immature brain is often incapable of recognizing and responding to less obvious and/or ambiguous challenges (such as the approaches of a seemingly kindly sexual predator).

The developmental strategy is to mature (1) recognition brain systems during a sheltered childhood in which parents and other supervisory adults with mature frontal lobes make most of the important decisions, and (2) response brain systems during an adolescence in which young folks move from a sheltered to a more autonomous life.

Preadolescent children thus focus on mastering factual label/location information that provides them with a sense of how the world is organized and classified, and on observing and learning the various problem solving strategies that adults use. As their frontal lobes mature, adolescents use what they have learned during childhood and their early adolescent fumbling to gradually assume responsibility for solving their own problems.

But we live in a society in which many others share our personal challenges—for transportation, security, the education of the young, etc. We’ve thus created a government in which complex common challenges are corporately solved in a democratic fashion. It’s a good arrangement. I can individually buy a car and choose to drive somewhere, but we corporately pay for the huge investment that streets/roads require. I shouldn’t expect however, that everyone would agree with me on the decisions a democratic society makes about shared problems. Continuous dissention and negotiation are hallmarks of a democratic society—and we vote to replace the government if isn’t up to the current challenges.

Our brain and government function best when they have a sense of what challenges might occur, and so can begin to develop a response strategy before the actual challenge occurs. Establishing a college fund for a child and establishing a military force for potential national dangers are examples of that kind of predictive behavior.

When bad things occur (and they will) we seem to be able to cope better if we’re not surprised. Age and experience generally enhance our ability to predict dangers and opportunities, and so to develop confident response. I recently watched a professional basketball game that went into an overtime period. I was amazed at the calm confidence experienced players exhibit in tight situations in which they must act quickly and decisively—confidence that can only emerge out of prior success in countless similar situations.

Adult Support for Fear of War:

Young people today typically have no personal experience with the violence of war. The violence and carnage in the videogames many play provide a distorted sense of the terrible personal cost of war. Win or lose, they can turn off the game and shift—physically unhurt—to something else. Real battle death is an abstraction until it occurs within one’s family or circle of friends.

PARENTS of today’s children also typically don’t know what to make of a possible Middle East war. The Vietnam War provides little personal context for most beyond what they may have heard when they were children. What they do understand, however, was that it ended up being a very politically divisive war that we didn’t win—and that’s fearful.

Whatever occurs during the next several months, it’s apparent that our country is and probably will be politically divided on the Middle East issue, and that the war and its aftermath could extend for a long time. History will tell us about the wisdom of whatever course our country takes—but in the meantime, parents and educators must try to help young folks through this complex unpredictable period.

Citizens in a democratic society have the right to their beliefs, even though they may be in the minority. Various laws limit how we act on our beliefs, but personal beliefs per se are Constitutionally protected. Parents should thus clearly explain to their children the base and intensity of their personal beliefs about war (and this potential war), but also accept the reality that their adolescent children may develop their own different concerns and beliefs. When that occurs within your family, engage in reasoned, reasonable, and respectful discussion. It’s important for adolescents to realize that family bonds don’t demand identical beliefs. Parents may appropriately limit their children’s inappropriate behavior, but they should provide a family environment in which the personal beliefs of all can emerge and flower.

EDUCATORS have a different kind of responsibility. Schools shouldn’t try to shape the political beliefs of students, but rather provide the conceptual/factual information that students need in order to develop a belief. Parents may bias such information during family discussions in favor of their own beliefs, but schools should remain neutral and provide as balanced a perspective as possible. Thus, at a fundamental level, the curriculum (with mass media support) should at least provide students with accurate information about all the countries involved in a potential conflict, its relationship to the Kuwait War a dozen years ago, and the projected personal/economic costs and financing of a war. Further, it should allow students to express their personal beliefs in classroom discussions that respect differing views.

The curriculum must also strongly communicate that although a representative democracy encourages diversity in opinion, it functions on the basis of majority votes that assign current selected decisions to the appropriate elected officials. Citizens have a right to disagree with such decisions, but such dissent should be reasoned, reasonable, and respectful.

Individuals and governments make wise and unwise decisions, and they always have to live with the results of their decisions. Our society tends to survive and go on, and so it’s important for parents and educators to communicate a sense of optimism about the state of the world. When things seem bad, they tend to get better. When things seem good, they may get worse. Through it all, folks of good will survive.

Last night, my wife and I saw Roman Polanski’s moving film, The Pianist. It focuses on the terrible plight of Polish Jews during World War II. The story of the principal character is one of survival, but it’s important to recall that most of his family and friends died in the Holocaust. What we’ll never know is what might have happened if the US had entered World War II earlier—and if we had done so, whether it would have been the right thing to do.

Fear can thus appropriately result in either action or lack of action. The excellent eight page well-illustrated cover story of the March 2003 issue of Discover Magazine focuses on the underlying neurobiology of fear. It’s the first of a series of three articles that will focus on important new developments in our understanding of emotion.