Dr Helen Kirkaldie, Consultant Clinical Psychologist
“For some children, the hard reality is that they will have experienced safety so rarely that their empathy may be under-developed –the potential is there but just out of reach.”
This pandemic is paralysing for lots of understandable reasons – that is what happens when we are afraid; and what could be more frightening than a potentially deadly virus that you can’t see? The paralysis is exacerbated from a professional perspective when you know there is a desperate need that your service is struggling to meet because its whole model depends on connections. And connecting is the one thing that poses the biggest risk right now. Our team have been desperate to connect with our colleagues across education, social care, health and the third sector in the midst of this crisis; at a time when they are all necessarily going into survival mode themselves. Slowly, as we adjust to a new normal, those connections are re-establishing. How can we help when seeing people face to face is no longer a safe option? One way is by listening really hard to the themes that emerge and sharing our reflections in as many creative ways as possible. This blog is an attempt to respond to one theme that is already being fed back to us on a regular basis…..how to support young people who don’t seem to care one iota about the lockdown.
There is significant pressure on those looking after young people, either as birth parents, kinship carers, adoptive parents, or carers in residential homes. More specifically, we have heard about carer’s struggles to keep their children and young people inside; and the difficult feelings that emerge when they are met with a seemingly unconcerned young person determined to leave the house, no matter what. This is a new and additional pressure on our Police right now too, whose job it is to get young people off the streets.
It’s unnerving to think that children and young people ‘don’t care’. In the course of my work, I have often seen the group of professionals who support children be brought to a sort of paralysis that comes from worrying that a child or young person has ‘no empathy’ or ‘no remorse’. It’s understandable that we are frightened by this – our society’s safety relies upon us caring about each other and, at the very least, ensuring that we don’t harm one another. Doesn’t this pandemic bring that into sharp relief? Often the people on the receiving end of this seeming lack of empathy are the very people who have tried to connect and care the most – the parents, relatives and carers. A devastating double whammy.
In this blog I wanted to help make sense of this reaction; but first it seems important to say that I don’t subscribe to a ‘them and us’ mentality – so, before I move on to the reasons why this might happen, I want to be honest about my own perspective on this. I have had times in my life when I was younger where I have completely lacked empathy; have cut off; and have taken risks with a high cost not just for me, but the people close to me. It is difficult to write that, but it is true, and it is really important to own that truth in the current situation. I am writing not just as a person who has academic and professional expertise, but also some experience, as we all do, of being human.
There were lots of good things about my childhood: I lived with two parents and an older brother who loved me and each other. Unfortunately, like many families, there was also alcoholism and domestic violence. The impact of living in a home that did not always feel physically or emotionally safe has stayed with me all my life – sometimes in ways that I resent and fear; and sometimes in ways that are positive and helpful. Indeed, my career choice has no doubt been shaped by this experience – I now work as a Clinical Psychologist specialising in attachment relationships and developmental trauma and so understanding childhood’s like my own is my focus.
Learning about the impact of our early attachment relationships and how the brain and body react to constant or repeated threat gave me an insight into some of the feelings I have experienced and some of the ways I have behaved. We are all in this together, but we are all individuals with our own backstories and our own very different coping strategies. There have already been multiple times in this crisis where I have seen the very best and the worst of people; the common thread being that we are all doing our best just trying to get through. The Gwent Attachment Service recently tweeted a similar statement:
I stand by that (in fact I tweeted it).
Why does this happen?
I have always found Kim Golding’s Pyramid of Need useful in understanding how much we can expect of a child, young person or parent, or indeed ourselves. The pyramid reminds us that, first and foremost, before anything else, we need physical and emotional safety. This forms the foundation. Without this in place, children (and grown-ups) will struggle to develop in other core arenas; relationship building; the ability to indicate when they need comfort and to accept that comfort from a trusted adult; the ability to allow someone to help them regulate their emotional and physiological state and, in time, to learn how to manage this themselves. This includes the ability to reflect on behaviour and show empathy for others.
I remember the penny drop moment I had when I first saw how this pyramid so clearly articulates that, in the absence of safety, it is difficult to reach those parts of ourselves that allow us to hold others in mind. Instead, we are completely pre-occupied with managing the big emotions we are experiencing, as well as trying to organise our world in a way that helps us minimise the lack of safety.
The empty shelves in super-markets spring to mind in the COVID19 pandemic as an example -selfish or survival? For some children, the hard reality is that they will have experienced safety so rarely that their empathy may be under-developed –the potential is there but just out of reach.
In the current crisis, we are hearing that some of our most vulnerable children are failing to see the danger and threat in this outbreak. They are angry and outraged at carers who refuse to take a trip out just to get them an Easter egg, or completely indifferent to their carer’s worry and fear when they go to leave the house for long periods of this lockdown. I think this can be understood by remembering that lots of these children will have spent much of their lives coming to terms with their world being unsafe, unpredictable and unloving. Experience has often shown them that other people cannot be relied upon to keep them safe. Why should they trust you? You simply cannot live your life in utter panic and fear – as human beings we find ways to cope, ways to live through it. Not allowing yourself to rely on others and just dealing with your own short-term needs minute by minute are common and understandable coping strategies if life has taught you that your needs might not be met. When you are dealing with a child who has experienced significant trauma, you are essentially dealing with an expert in feeling unsafe. We are now telling them there is reason to be worried and scared and take precautions and my guess would be that on some level they will be thinking that our new normal is their, well, normal- what’s different? A lot of children survive difficult circumstances by taking control – asking them to stay indoors must feel like a huge breech of the personal control that has kept them safe so far.
The other idea that might help us understand why some children might seem to lack care and concern for others is Dan Hughes’ Shield of Shame. As we develop throughout childhood, we experience the full range of emotions. Our emotions feel overwhelming at times, but by and large most of us will experience them safely: with a trusted adult helping us to make sense of it, feeling it with us, teaching us that the feelings can be survived and that we can come through it with help from others. Children who have experienced a lack of physical and emotional safety in their home life will likely have experienced difficult emotions more frequently, more intensely, and often by themselves. Dan Hughes tells us that shame is a particularly difficult emotion – it tells us we are bad. Typically as children develop, caregivers usually provide experiences that tell us we are not bad, even if we have done a bad thing. We start to experience guilt (I did something I regret) rather than shame (I am bad). We know that our most vulnerable children are often dealing with shame, and they deal with it on their own. Their experiences have told them that adults cannot be trusted and will likely let them down, or worse. Again, we are left with a scenario where we simply cannot allow ourselves to be drowned in shame – it is just too hard. The resulting coping strategy often leaves us looking relatively shameless; lying or minimising our behaviour, blaming others, and raging at the world.
So what do we do about it?
Holding it in mind might just help you if you are feeling exasperated and disappointed. It can be easy to feel like we are failing – these feelings aren’t helpful to us when we know we have a marathon ahead and we feel we’ve expended all our energy on a sprint just to keep our child indoors for the next hour. More than that, it might be important to reflect on how these ideas apply to all of us right now. I know the lack of safety has impacted me. When I’ve struggled to follow a TV programme in the evening I know it’s a sign that, as much as I have tried to be present for those around me at work and at home, I have probably been somewhat disengaged and preoccupied. I also see myself in the shield of shame – I’ve had my share of rages, I’ve blamed others for things that I have some responsibility in, and I’ve lied when people have asked how I am – feeling too embarrassed (and ashamed?) to admit I’m scared. So perhaps the most important thing we can do, for all of us, is adjust our expectations of ourselves and others.
Failing that, we know that little things can help create safety – and with safety comes the possibility of being able to support a child’s thinking and behaviour in a way that doesn’t feel unbearable for them. Safety can be enhanced by making new routines and rituals to help us all feel secure. Allowing yourself to ‘be with’ a child in their emotion and experience – however far this pushes us out of our own comfort zone. Trying to connect with them and show we can be trusted often comes from us showing our own vulnerability – for example saying “I care about you and I am worried about you getting sick”. I say all of this knowing, of course, that their shield makes it highly likely that what will come back at you may well be a signal to back off (perhaps put in more colourful language). But speaking as someone who has shouted their fair share of ‘back offs’, we remember those who genuinely try to connect with us, even if we aren’t able to show it at the time.