This last year of global pandemic has been a time of massive disruption to almost everyone. With it has come disconnection in various forms and the challenge of reconnecting at points when restrictions have lifted. Children and young people have faced their own particular challenges with school closures preventing contact with peers and friends, in addition to the stress of uncertainty about exams and other limitations related to online learning. At a time when many teens would normally be exploring social freedoms to the full, those who have kept to the rules have made do with scraps of interaction and often relied heavily on digital forums. Sadly, a considerable number have struggled to hold onto what fragile self-esteem and social confidence they formally knew. Even some of those used to thriving have found their resilience quashed and required additional support to pull through.
We are still in the early days of reconnecting with the world and all the structures of human engagement that we once took for granted and, with time, we will no doubt start to see the fuller picture of how people’s lives have been impacted by COVID and all that has come in its wake. For some, reconnecting is proving to be a battle. There are those for whom the protection of a smaller, quieter world felt safer and some are simply feeling rusty about conversing and interfacing with real live people.
Hardships faced by those whose lives COVID has touched in very tangible ways, have brought forth numerous stories of lived empathy in response to people encountering terrible pain and the loss of health and loved ones, empathy perhaps evoked by the realisation that these losses could become reality for any of us. Likewise, there has been widespread, heartfelt support for the thousands of frontline workers who have sacrificed their own safety for the wellbeing of others and for those who have lost jobs, income and businesses. Many have felt for children deprived of opportunities to learn and play as they usually would and this continues to be a time when the younger generation needs us to recognise and engage with what they are going through.
Children and young people with social and emotional difficulties always require our empathy as part of recovery and perhaps even more so in these times. Empathy is what helps them feel understood, paving the way for self-acceptance, which in turn makes it more possible to seek support from others. Daniel A. Hughes (pioneer of Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy) places Empathy at the core of the PACE approach, along with Acceptance and Curiosity (see my other blogs on these two subjects). In his book, co-written with John Baylin (The Neurobiology of Attachment-Focused Therapy: Enhancing Connection and Trust) he talks about embracing “the child’s defensiveness, putting connection before correction” and offering “radical acceptance” of the child’s mistrust.
In this context, Hughes and Baylin were referring to the particular struggles faced by traumatised children with attachment difficulties but we could apply the same principle to supporting children and young people who are emotionally and socially adjusting to each “new normal” they are faced with, whether or not they have experienced additional childhood trauma pre-COVID.
Hughes and Baylin recognise that this is no easy task, likening it to “hugging a porcupine”. Social and emotional defences, by their nature, are often difficult to permeate and can repel. A child or young person who repeatedly gives off a vibe of wanting to be left alone can leave the person reaching out feeling confused, rejected, useless and resentful and can lead, understandably, to withdrawal. This makes it even harder for the child or young person to reconnect, risking further disconnection, isolation and all the ill-effects that these states can bring.
If we can catch ourselves withdrawing and find empathy within ourselves for how the child or young person may be feeling in that very moment when they are unable to allow us in, we provide a bridge back into connection. This is so powerful as it communicates that we have not given up and that we see the child or young person as worth sticking with – we still see that part of them which has the potential to be in relationship with others and the world.
Brene Brown, in a Youtube clip based on part of her Tedtalk on Empathy, beautifully describes how “empathy fuels connection”. She refers to Teresa Wiseman’s 4 qualities of empathy: recognising another person’s perspective is their truth, staying out of judgement, recognising emotion in others and then communicating this. This is about “feeling with people” she says. Being with others is so much more effective than trying to fix the situation by saying the right thing: “Rarely can a response make something better, what makes something better is connection.”
In taking an empathic stance, we make an active choice to suspend our own anxiety and impatience about the pace at which a child or young person is re-engaging with life post-lockdown. We accept where things are at and we take time to understand as best we can. We then make what Brene Brown calls a “vulnerable choice”, that is choosing to connect with something in ourselves which knows the feeling we have encountered in another. This vulnerable choice is a risk well worth taking if we are serious about wanting to mitigate against the secondary effects of COVID on the mental health and wellbeing of children and young people today.
Brighton and Hove Psychotherapy is a collective of experienced psychotherapists, psychologists and counsellors working with a range of client groups, including fellow therapists and health professionals. If you would like more information, or an informal discussion please get in touch with us. Online therapy is available.
See more from Brene Brown at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jz1g1SpD9Zo
Read more from Baylin and Hughes.