Helping to heal and empowering them to thrive
By Sarah Waters
Psychotherapist and Therapeutic Parenting Practitioner
Sarah Waters is a psychotherapist experienced in working with the effects of abuse, neglect, and childhood trauma. She also specialises in the family therapy and parenting model, Dyadic Developmental Practice (DDP)1. Sarah is a member of HART2 (Health Advisory Recovery Team) which is a group of highly qualified UK doctors, scientists, economists, psychologists, and other academic experts who came together over shared concerns about policy and guidance recommendations relating to the COVID-19 pandemic. She is also a steering group member of Therapists For Medical Freedom3 who are a collective of counsellors, psychotherapists, psychologists and associated therapeutic professionals deeply concerned about the growing use of medical coercion and the loss of civil liberties as part of the international response to managing the COVID-19 pandemic.
This paper, which is the author’s opinion, examines whether there is an ever-widening ‘Science-Practice Gap’ when it comes to healthy child development and explores the attributes that adults now urgently need to develop to protect the emotional health of the young.
The following quote, credited to the Indian teacher Krishnamurti, presents us with what I feel is one of the greatest challenges of our time:
“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society”
The Covid era has shown many of us just how broken and dysfunctional the systems around us are when it comes to protecting young people’s emotional health. It’s becoming increasingly obvious that it’s the sick society that we are passing on to future generations that should be the priority target of our interventions for change, rather than the focus being on our young people (and ourselves). No one who works with children would support them to adapt to an abusive home environment so how can we justify supporting them to adapt to a social environment that is harmful for them? Surely it’s time to fully comprehend that the trauma-informed sessions in schools, the damaging psychiatric drugs and endless rounds of short-term counselling are not the answer.
Despite years of endless courses, masterclasses and industry experts teaching us about the importance of recognising and processing trauma, neither has happened, pre or post covid. Even though we have gone through one of the most traumatic periods in history, we and our children are expected to carry on as ‘normal’. No one is accepting responsibility for traumatising a generation of young people, let alone acknowledging that what was allowed to happen was wrong. Or if they are – it’s too little, too late. Are we witnessing a colossal discrepancy between the widely acknowledged evidence base for healthy child development and what is offered in practice? Is there an ever widening ‘Science-Practice Gap’4 and would the most effective therapy and/or pill be to recognise this and concentrate on transforming the aspects of society that are causing the pain?
The greatest contribution of John Bowlby, the founder of Attachment Theory5, to the potential wellbeing of our culture, is the understanding that children are extremely vulnerable but must be resilient to survive. However, resilience requires the child to adapt, in a variety of possible ways, to a hostile environment. The adaptations needed for survival are often very hard to reverse, even if conditions improve, especially so within the younger age group. This makes the Covid measures, fraught with physical and psychological harms, so shocking.
Those who work with young children should know that they are developing rapidly and extensively during those years, a process that began in-utero, only a few weeks after conception. While some of a child’s brain development is controlled by genes, it is profoundly impacted by their environment and relationships, which interact with these genes in a process known as epigenetics7. The inhumane way in which young people were allowed to be treated during the Covid era, all in the name of public health, will surely go down as one of the most shameful acts in human history.
The harms done to children of all ages by covid policies are indisputable, and are painstakingly outlined in the latest evidence briefing8 from Dr Ros Jones (Retired Paediatrician) and Dr Zenobia Storah (Clinical Psychologist) in their September 2022 round up for HART (Health Advisory Recovery Team). Yet the vast majority seem to want to minimise what has been allowed to take place, ignore it completely or view it as unavoidable fallout. Amelia Hill of The Guardian has written several articles9 recently, reflecting on how the pandemic has changed young people’s lives for the worse; sadly, she fails to point out it was the response to the pandemic that was so devastating, not the pandemic itself.
The emotional and physical abuse of children and young people over the past two years is undeniable; diktats and guidelines were implemented by adults who were made so fearful10 that they lacked curiosity, reflection or critical thinking, and left this vulnerable population group disturbingly unprotected. A new study11, covering 38 countries, has recently reported that the average Infection Fatality Rate (IFR) was 0.0003% for 0-19-year-olds (pre ‘vaccination’), but they have had their personal, social, and emotional development significantly delayed, for some irreversibly, by those who are meant to protect them.
Putting adults needs first, over and above those of the young, are not the actions of a healthy, forward thinking, loving society. Saving the NHS and protecting the health of those older than themselves, including relatives and teachers, is not the responsibility of young people. The importance of the young in the pecking order of life was eloquently stated by Mahatma Gandhi many years ago, when he warned us that ‘if we are to reach real peace in this world and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with children’.
Until Covid, immersed and proud to be in the ‘Trauma Informed’ world, I naively felt optimistic that putting children first was becoming a higher priority in the UK; however, the reality is that services for children and young people have been in shocking decline12 for some time. The UK has the one of the worst outcomes in the developed world for their mental health, physical health, education, social care, youth justice and poverty. Cost cutting has decimated children’s services and those that survive are so inaccessible that parents describe getting help as like ‘wading through a swamp’, a swamp that has got a whole lot deeper since March 2020. Schools have become stricter, thousands of children have gone missing13, and the few remaining services for the young, families and parents seem to have all but disappeared or gone online.
Most alarming, but unsurprising of all, is that evidence is now emerging that the Covid response (in the form of school closures, movement restrictions, isolation, overcrowding and stay at home measures) increased the frequency and intensity of risk factors for child abuse. A recent BMJ article14 outlines that in the UK alone there was a 1493% increase in cases of abusive head trauma presenting at the Great Ormond Street Hospital. The authors describe it as ‘an unseen pandemic – hidden in plain sight’ and the collateral damage for children as ‘nearly insurmountable’. They go onto ask an all-important question; ‘the desire for a sense of security may be a tempting bias towards emphasising the resilience of children, but is it ethically problematic to push children towards abuse in the name of public health?’ Surely the answer is a resounding ‘no’?
More mental health services for young people and a trauma informed army to support them after they’ve been damaged is not the answer either. We, the People, including professionals, parents, and all other members of society, need to stand up and protect them, and develop the personal qualities within us with which to carry out this task so what has been allowed to happen is recognised and never allowed to happen again. Those of us who work within the mental health field or with the young are particularly obligated to play a key role in this important social transformation; taking action and speaking out is the medicine that that will relieve the distress. The forthcoming Covid Enquiry15 hardly mentions children at all so we need to face the fact that, despite how it may look on the surface, they are bottom of the list of priorities with regard to protecting their physical and emotional health, when they should be at the top.
Consider that the government managed to find £410 BILLION16 to spend on Covid measures, many of them unscientific and ineffective, and at worst, dangerous. Surely this must challenge the collective belief that they are acting in our best interests. They are not. It is imperative we absorb this fact now and take the emotional and physical wellbeing of our young into our own hands. The story of the Wizard of Oz demonstrates the attributes I feel we need to develop to help our children and young people heal from what has happened, and to thrive in the world we are living in today. Using our brains, finding our courage, and doing so from a loving heart, should enable us to empower them to become sovereign beings, who can stand up for themselves and others, in the face of any further assaults upon their human dignity. To put it simply, we need to follow the yellow brick road, and encourage our young to do the same.
To deal with the fallout of this current and global ‘tornado’, to fully comprehend the damage that has been done, we need to put our own oxygen masks on first and attend to our wellbeing as a matter of priority. This will get us out of fight-or-flight mode, where our critical reflection and curiosity may have been limited, and situate us in an optimal state to support the young that are in our care. We need to get our brains back online so we can see the bigger picture. It’s imperative to prioritise the regulation of our jarred nervous systems and to look after mind, body, and spirit in whatever way works for us. Once we feel more nurtured, grounded, and connected, the pre-frontal cortex in our brain comes back online so we can reason and reflect upon the collective trauma we have all been subjected to, and to process it.
We have all suffered in varying degrees and if we look at Bessel van der Kolk’s seven preconditions for trauma17 and think about the past 2.5 years then it will certainly put this into context. It is even more relevant when we think about what the affects have been upon children:
- A lack of predictability (lockdowns/schools shutting)
- Immobility with fear/powerlessness (fear campaign/told what to do)
- Loss of connection (lockdowns/social distancing/no school/no socialising/no family get togethers)
- Numbing and/or spacing out (increase in all addictions/self-harm/retreating into online dissociation)
- A loss of sense of time and sequence (schools shutting/society locking down)
- A loss of safety (emotional/physical/metaphysical)
- A loss of purpose (no school/socialising/what’s the point?)
And one that is very personal to me:
- A loss of trust and betrayal (in almost everything and everyone that I thought I could rely upon)
The following description of the importance of unpacking Covid trauma18 is credited to Relendra, an American psychotherapist. In a recent haunting article she highlights the importance of unpacking, sorting through, integrating, clearing, and healing from the trauma. The young need us to recognise their suffering and name it. A coherent narrative will support their wellbeing, and attachment research suggests that it isn’t just what happens to them that affects their relationships; they are also affected by the extent to which they haven’t been able to feel the full pain and make sense of their experiences. When we don’t deal with our trauma, we carry it with us. We haven’t made sense or processed the emotional content of our story, and therefore, our past is still impacting our present in countless invisible ways. Trauma also carries a message of collusion and confusion with it such as, ‘it wasn’t that bad’, ‘keep it silent’, ‘you only got what you deserved’.
When adults own up to what they have allowed to happen, young people can reclaim their sense of boundaries, their own reality and self-respect, knowing that they didn’t deserve to be treated in that way, a way that amounts to state sanctioned abuse and neglect19. Healing from trauma is a process of remembering. It’s in the forgetting of what happened that trauma stays lodged in our bodies and unconscious minds, assaulting us, and our young, with anxiety, depression, brain fog and disassociation.
The collective trauma we have all been through has become the elephant in the room and the adults and systems around our young are not acknowledging the effects, let alone accepting any responsibility for it. We need to realise; everyone has been psychologically manipulated and it is imperative to step up into an adult ego state and out of the hypnosis to protect the young from any more emotional harm. Mattias Desmet, the Dutch Professor of clinical psychology in the Department of Psychology and Educational Sciences at Ghent University (Belgium) and a practicing psychoanalytic psychotherapist goes so far as to say the majority of people are now in a state of collective mass formation/psychosis20.
We mustn’t turn away from this out of fear and disbelief – we must process our trauma first, then find the courage to talk to our children about what they have been through (in an age-appropriate way) and especially to admit, apologise and repair, if we have allowed something to happen to them that we now realise was harmful.
We need to be courageous and remember the horrors our young have been put through, declare what happened, bring it into the light of day, and insist on recognition. Even if there is no acknowledgment, the fact that we insist upon it, will contribute greatly to our healing. Developing the use of empathic, heart–based, therapeutic parenting approaches21 when talking to our young is essential . Our world, and the men and women in it, desperately need to develop a more empathic, nurturing side, and this is never more apparent than in our dealings with children.
Care of the young seemed to be moving in this direction, after thousands of years of them being treated with hostility, abuse, cruelty, and disdain. Despite the intuitive and scientific evidence base that demonstrates what the young need to thrive emotionally and physically, the last few years have shown how easy it is, in the face of physical danger, to be overcome with fear and go into reverse. One of the most crucial roles adults must now play in supporting them is to challenge the mechanistic view of the world that the Covid era has consistently and rigorously reinforced; a world that can supposedly be technologically controlled to create certainty and safety, but at what cost?
Young people need to take risks; we all do, it’s part of being human. Indeed, it’s how we all grow and mature. We must teach our young that uncertainty is an inherent part of being human and a necessary condition for the emergence of creativity, individuality, and connectedness. That we need to be in co-operation with, not in opposition to, the intelligence of nature. That death is a part of life, not something to run from no matter what the cost may be. That we are powerful, spiritual beings, more powerful than those who controlled us during Covid (and continue to do so) would like us to be or like us to know.
It takes courage, sound thinking and the fire of love in our hearts to seek only the truth to eventually break through the illusion. The Wizard of Oz parable is a reminder that we need to be very careful and take action to protect and help others around us, in particular the young and vulnerable. Just as the witches in the movie thought Oscar was a great wizard, we have made similar assumptions about the political system, and those who work within it, that they are there for the benefit of the people. They never were and never will be.
Speaking out calmly, wisely, and rationally is now essential, as it leads to experiences of “meaning and existence and even if it has no affect upon the other, it will steadily elevate us within our humanity’22. It’s also a fantastic way to model courage to our young people, to empower them to speak up for themselves, to be brave and risk standing out from the crowd. We must all wear our ruby slippers and, like Dorothy, realise how powerful we are and how magical the universe is. We must grow into this power and help our young feel confident to do the same:
‘The person who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd. The person who walks alone is likely to find himself in places no one has ever seen before’
Sarah recently spoke about the above at ‘Healthcare: The Future’ – a 3-day online event broadcast from Zanzibar (www.healthcarethefuture.com)
You can listen to her presentation here:
- Desmet. M. The Psychology of Totalitarianism (2022) p142