Heffner column: Protecting our children from harm
The spread of the global pandemic to our shores has confronted us once again with the need as parents to help our children understand and deal with a looming threat, one that impacts on all our lives. In this instance, the unseen threat may impose restrictions on children’s activities and be difficult for them to accept.
Almost from the moment of conception we try to protect our children from harm. During pregnancy we are careful about what we eat and drink. We give much thought to what and how we should feed our babies. We read books and manuals about physical and emotional development, all with the goal of providing the best for our children and avoiding anything that might be harmful.
As soon as children are beyond our physical care, we give thought to how far to let them expand their boundaries while still keeping them safe. From letting them walk down the street without holding our hand, to climbing on the jungle gym, to going to school alone, and on through all the stages of growing independence we measure how much is safe, how much is not. The challenge is always to balance their striving and need for independence with our responsibility to keep them safe. Upsetting to us as parents is the realization that we are unable to protect our children from many things in life.
It is a human reaction to look for explanations of things we are unable to explain, as if finding a reason will make the irrational rational, almost as if understanding it will enable us retroactively to stop it from happening. In regard to the current crisis, children’s wish for explanations may be somewhat less challenging in that illness and its restrictions have probably already been part of their life experience. This unseen threat may seem less worrisome than the threat of gun violence that has already disturbed the school lives of many children.
In this instance, the lives of both parents and children have been disrupted leading to frustration as well as worry, and to push back from children to the restrictions they encounter. For parents, the need to deal with children whose activities have been restricted makes for added stress.
Our own emotional reactions to the threat of illness as well as the stress of the preventive measures needed, can interfere with our ability to hear the concerns of our children. The recognition of our own inability to protect our children from life’s events can be overwhelming. We know there are things from which we can’t protect them, just as we also know that we cannot reassure them that this could never happen to them. This is painful to experience as a parent.
If we are aware of the feelings aroused in us by these limitations, we can put them aside and listen instead for our children’s feelings and concerns. Often, they are different from our own. The way children react to an event like this is connected to where they are both in age and developmental stage. School age children are likely to have encountered restrictions set by a larger world, whereas young children may attribute limits not to their liking to their parents.
Such concerns are often not expressed directly so we have to listen for them at other times. But more generally in terms of how we talk to our children, our awareness of our own feelings and limitations can help us strike that difficult to achieve balance between unrealistic reassurance and unrealistic alarm.
The reassurance for us is our children’s resilience, both physically and emotionally.
Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: The Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.