Heffner column: Realities of life
Columns share an author’s personal perspective.
There have been numerous articles advising how to talk to children about the threefold impact of the pandemic, racial upset and the economic fallout disrupting the well-being of many families. Reassurance seems unrealistic given the fact that these events seem without end, and school is no longer available as a safe place. More upsetting to us as parents is the realization that we are not able to protect our children from many things in life.
Almost from the moment of conception we are trying to protect our children from harm. During pregnancy we are careful about what we eat and drink. 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.
The problem now is how to maintain any such balance when the usual strivings of children are seriously restricted by the requirements for safety. In addition, as parents our strivings are also severely limited by the same requirements, creating the potential for stressful interactions. Keeping our children safe now involves unexpected hurdles.
The search for a reason may be in the thoughts of both parents and children. It is a human reaction to look for explanations of things we are unable to explain. It is as if we find a reason that will make the irrational rational. Almost as if understanding it will enable us retroactively to stop it from happening. This partly reflects a need to assign blame, but also a search for understanding.
It is our awareness of these underlying feelings that can be of the most help in talking to our children if we also listen to try to hear what it is that concerns them. What interferes with hearing our children are our own emotional reactions. The recognition of our own inability to protect our children in the most profound way from life’s events can be overwhelming. We know there are things from which we can’t protect them, just as we cannot reassure them that we won’t die. This is painful to experience as a parent.
In the same way, we can’t explain to them why this is happening in a way that makes sense, because it makes no sense to us. This is difficult for us as parents since we expect to be able to explain things to them and they expect that of us. Also, we often use explanation as a method of reassurance.
If we are aware of the feelings aroused in us by today’s realities, we can put them aside for the moment and listen for our children’s feelings and concerns. Often, they are different from our own. The way children react is connected to where they are both in age and developmental stage. But in talking 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, and their preoccupation with the more typical pleasures and pains of daily life.
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.