The new stuff of nightmares

Once children in the United States were afraid of the dark and things that go bump in the night. Now they have more serious real-world concerns. Adi Bloom reports.

Once upon a time, long, long ago, American children cowered under the bedclothes, afraid of ghosts and darkness and thunderstorms. But times change and children change with them. They now quake in fear of rape, guns and terrorist attacks.

Joy Burnham, of Alabama university, has examined the changing fears of children across the years. In 1897, she reports, children were scared of animals, disease and death, together with the perils of things that go bump in the dark. Now, few of the simpler fears of the 19th-century remain.

Dr Burnham surveyed more than 1,000 boys and girls aged between 6 and 18.

The foremost fear, among 60.9 per cent of pupils, was rape. Almost as many cited being unable to breathe or contracting Aids. Fear of death, their own or of a member of their family, also ranked highly.

Other fears were more revealing of modern-day preoccupations: 47 per cent said they were scared of terrorist attacks, while almost as many feared that they would have to fight in a war.

Many were afraid of tornadoes and hurricanes, possibly reflecting the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Katrina on the southern city of New Orleans in August 2005.

Pupils also feared shooting incidents, following the shootings at an Amish school in October 2006.

Dr Burnham claims that schools need to be prepared to deal with the fears of the modern age. Teachers and school counsellors should speak to children in times of crisis, such as after a terrorist attack or school shooting.

But they also need to provide help with everyday adversity.

Mark Prever, who supervises counsellors in Birmingham schools, agrees that most pupils' fears are grounded in their homes, schools and communities.

"Our kids are more likely to be excited by ghosts and spirits than scared by them," he says.

"They're scared of being bullied, of their parents splitting up, of being mugged. It's a very narrow experience, but a very immediate one for them."


What scares children most

The most common fears among American children aged 6 to 18 are:

1 Being raped

2 Not being able to breathe

3 Aids

4 Dying

5 Being threatened with a gun

6 Being kidnapped

7 Nuclear war

8 Someone in my family dying

9 Murderers

10 Being hit by a car or truck

11 Terrorist attacks

12 Taking dangerous or bad drugs

13 Having to fight in a war

14 Falling from high places

15 Drive-by shootings

16 Sharks

17 Shootings

18 Tornadoes or hurricanes

19 Getting pregnant

20 Drowning or swimming in water

Source: Fears of Youth in the 21st Century by Joy Burnham, Alabama University

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