Psychotherapist Noel McDermott examines our emotional ability to identify and empathise with others in situations of danger and how, when faced with existential, anti-social and anti-human threats, we assert our love and humanity stronger as we have learned as a species that in this is our survival.
Our deep responses to seeing children in threat is a species-level response, the deepest that exists for us as we are programmed to put a child’s safety before our own. Witnessing the lack of this capacity on our doorsteps is deeply disturbing to us as humans. After the pandemic, this war was far more shocking, yet another existential crisis.
How humans band together during existential threats
The pandemic had the effect of creating community on an international level. In behavioural psychology, it is likened to flocking behaviour in birds. We feel safe r in larger groups when faced with a predator. The precise nature of a pandemic happening in the 21st century meant we went online, vastly increasing the size of the flock and the depth of our international connectedness. During dangerous times humans seek and give solace to each other as a matter of nature.
Theory of mind
Our emotional ability to identify and empathise with others in dangerous situations is a profoundly human ability and a sign of psychological health. We feel distressed; we see others in distress is a natural and normal human response. Newborn babies display an empathy response we call flooding, where if there is a room full of happy newborns and one starts to cry, in relatively short order, the others will join the suit.
As we grow, this flooding, emotional contagion is replaced by more complex responses, the ability to identify with another protectively, or indeed an inanimate object such as a doll. This is part of the human capacity we call the theory of mind.
During WWII, we saw two large movements of children to places of safety. We saw kinder transport, the evacuation of Jewish children from mainland Europe to the UK and other security places, and we saw child evacuees from our cities to the countryside where we felt they would be safer. Our knowledge from t ose times tells us much about what will happen to Ukrainian children.
The child evacuees from cities all without fail came back to their parents where they could. This experience and every instance of forcible removal of children from their parents caused far more harm psychologically than it solved. Kids are so profoundly dep ndent on their parents for development that the sudden, shocking loss of that relationship can cause lifelong damage. As perverse as it might t seem, kids were ’safer’ from trauma and harm staying with loving parents in UK cities being bombed than being separated.
Separation and survival damage
The Jewish children who made it safely to the UK and other places lived the rest of their lives with that separation and survival damage. Survival at the ‘expense’ of our loved ones involves a dreadful and heavy price. The saving of those kids is r rightly considered a huge humanitarian success. You can visit a moving statue in London to their arrival, with their iconic suitcases and name tags.
These children inspired Michael Bond, the author of Paddington Bear, to give that character his suitcase and name tag. And you can find the Paddington Bear statue by the kind r-children figure at the station. Their safety came at a high psychological cost.
The UK has begun to take in refugees from Ukraine, and we have new kinder kids and, uniquely from this conflict, children arriving with their mums via the Home for Ukraine scheme. Uniquely because generally, in movements of refugees, it tends to be single men who can escape and later bring their families.
Or it’s kinder kids, orphans and children sent to safety by their p rents which cannot escape. The British public has responded superbly to this scheme, with tens of thousands signing up to help. We have learned from our own experiences that we must help kids with their families to get to safety, and we can, in this way, actually save kids from lifelong horror and trauma.
Short term effects on children under threat:
- anxious and depressive responses
- interrupted sleep
- problems with appetite
- concentration issues
- regressed behaviours
- emotional deregulation
- fear of people and situations
Serious trauma responses from children under threat:
- intrusive thoughts about bad events or full flashbacks
- regressed behaviours
- suicidal thoughts and behaviours
Psychotherapist Noel McDermott comments: ‘Most symptoms will abate if the child is in a place of safety and most importantly their primary carer is with them, and their carer is safe and stable. If the child gets back into school and a ‘normal life routine’, they will recover spontaneously in most cases.’
‘However, some children will be more deeply affected, and kids trapped in t e war zone and exposed to atrocity, etc., are more likely to develop more severe problems. Without treatment, those problems will become chronic and embedded in their personality development, becoming what we term Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C – PTSD).’
The development of the more severe issues and C-PTSD development is also more likely for kids separated from primary caregivers. It can’t be overstated how damaging separation from caregivers is for children developmentally. In these cases, early intervention is needed from appropriately qualified and experienced mental health specialists to reduce the risks of long-term problems.
Noel McDermott is a psychotherapist with over 25 years of experience in health, social care, and education. He has created unique mental health services in the independent sector. Noel’s company offer at-home mental health care and will source, identify and co-ordinate personalised care teams for the individual. They have recently launched a range of online therapy resources to help clients access help without leaving home.
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