Many years ago someone told me that it was a mistake to tell our children that everything is fine and nothing bad will happen.
After all, bad things do happen, and learning how to manage our reactions to bad things that happen during childhood is crucial. The best we can say to our children – so that they trust us, so that they build resilience — is that we will always do everything in our power to keep them out of harm’s way.
That was a pre-Covid conversation, a pre-Ukraine conversation. Bad thing happened — and now, with the horror of what is happening in Ukraine on the heels of two years of pandemic, we are struggling with what to say to our children. In fact, we struggle with what to tell ourselves.
There is no denying that the war in Ukraine is more difficult to deal with and respond to while we believe we are emerging from the Covid-19 crisis.
We cannot tell ourselves or our children that everything is or will be okay. It couldn’t be. That’s the reality. So how do we respond, and what is the best way—for us and our children—to do so?
Change, even catastrophic change, is inevitable. It is important how we react to it – and we should tell our children and ourselves.
Our response to the war is greatly influenced by where we are and we need to consider our post-Covid feelings when constructively managing our responses to it.
People are already feeling raw and devastated, and this could be a perfect storm of paralysis.
I spoke to Niamh Bruce last week, a mindfulness-based cognitive therapy practitioner who works as a mindfulness facilitator in Irish schools, helping students and teachers. She says we can’t figure out where to go until we understand where we’re coming from.
“Right now everyone has a heightened sense of helplessness post-Covid,” she says. “Wellbeing is when we have a sense of choice and control. We haven’t had much of that in recent years and now this war feels even more uncontrollable.”
We must allow this helplessness, she explained, but we must not wallow in it or be swallowed up by it.
When we talk about World War III and the nuclear apocalypse, it’s easy to get caught in a catastrophe loop, but it really doesn’t help anyone.
Defying this mindset, however, is easier said than done.
“How do you suppress the catastrophizing? First of all it is actually happens, and there’s no denying that. Second, you don’t want to tune it out and lose compassion.
“We can feel the urge to push it away and pretend it is not happens”, which they think is normal but also not helpful.
“When you explain to children, for example, it is important that they understand what is happening in Ukraine – but also that it is not something that is happening just a short walk away. That it’s happening far away from them, but still happening right now.
“Finding that balance of understanding is key – and a good way to do that is by collecting supplies to ship or by donating to the Red Cross or Unicef or a similar organization.
“This kind of active helping is good because it gives a sense of choice and control, and it comes from an understanding of our humanity.”
What we gained from the experience of Covid was a sense of community, she says, and we need to capitalize on that now. The response to Ukraine was not an “us and them” one. We feel close to them and want to help thembut we must guard against the danger of identifying too closely with the lived reality of war.
Last week I read about empathy as a “spongy” thing, about how it’s possible to have too much empathy – to the point where it becomes debilitating.
“Toxic empathy” is when you feel someone else’s difficulties so closely that you no longer realize it’s happening to them and not you.
While something like “pity fatigue” sounds like jaded negligence, “toxic empathy” is emotional overload, to the point of paralysis.
Needless to say, a crippling empathy overload doesn’t help you feel better and is of no benefit to the people who are actually going through the trauma.
It doesn’t help anyone.
To that end, and especially when helping children to be relatively calm and actively respond to something like this war, it can help to keep some distance between them and what is happening. Don’t forget about something or do it “differently”, but give it space to pause and think instead of acting out of panic or fear.
Panic and fear on the ground in Ukraine is not the same as panic and fear at a distance.
We can imagine what it’s like in someone else’s skin and try to help them, but we’re not in their shoes. To teach our children what is important.
It teaches them not only to cope with what’s happening remotely, but hopefully to deal with and respond to it constructively – a knock-on effect, it’s hoped, that they can cope with when bad things happen up close.
This bad thing happens and it’s not okay. We can’t tell our kids otherwise – but we can help them and ourselves navigate to a helpful answer.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/children-can-cope-with-far-off-disasters-but-its-a-balancing-act-41415646.html Kids can navigate distant disasters, but it’s a balancing act