the baby in the mirror

Old problems on young shoulders

Recession special at Gray's Papaya shopImage by Ed Yourdon via Flickr

How much are children attuned to the troubles of the world? Quite a lot, it seems. A report out today, based on 1000 face-to-face interviews with six- to twelve-year-olds, shows that concerns about the global recession are topping the lists of children’s reported worries. Fears of violence to self and others also loom large in children’s lives, with 30% of respondents saying that the bullying was a problem.

I wasn’t surprised to read about these young people’s attunement to economic and political realities. A paper due out soon in the journal Infant and Child Development reports some work done by my graduate student, Sarah Laing, on children’s fears, worries and ritualistic behaviours in middle childhood and adolescence. For her study, Sarah devised an in-depth interview in which 142 children aged between seven and sixteen rated how intensely they felt fears and worries about a range of topics, as well as getting an opportunity to come up with their own items of concern. We found that worry, as opposed to fear, was particularly strongly related to children’s performance of ritualistic behaviours, such as bedtime routines—suggesting that these sorts of behaviours may provide children with a way of coping with high anxiety. We also found that bullying and harm befalling a loved one were prominent on children’s lists of worries, a pattern that was clear right across the age range.

Sarah’s study also showed that the anxieties of the age were finding their way into children’s emotional worlds. Sarah collected her data in December 2004, when the war in Iraq was raging. The war was the most intense of all sources of worry for the 11–12-year-old age group, ranking as highly as worry about harm befalling a loved one. The good news is that fear and worry become less intense as children get older, although we found a surge in intensity at the end of adolescence, as (presumably) the realities of adulthood press ever more strongly.

I’m happy to send readers a preprint of the paper if they’d like to see it.

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