Parenting During Turmoil

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We asked art therapist Helena Hurrell how to protect and empower children when the news is filled with real-life monsters like COVID 19 and police brutality.

Horrific news bombards us daily – school shootings, bombs, fires, train crashes. Parents try to shield “little pitchers with big ears” from such stories, yet children see and hear more than we did in the our own childhood when the news existed on three channels after bedtime. We try to protect our youngest, while we understand that older children need truth in order to become responsible citizens of the world. Too much information can overwhelm and depress teens and adults – so what is the right balance?

Kathryn Camp {KC}:
How can we protect and empower children when bad things happen?
Art Therapist Helena Hurrell {HH}:

Parents have to find ways – whether it’s through  journaling, meditating, going for a walk or a bike ride – to digest what’s happening in the world. Children sense our feelings and can be very confused when we are agitated. We have to find our center. It is a spiritual practice to be a parent. When we meet a tragic event with a calm, purposeful, positive world view, as opposed to becoming entrenched in the drama of it, then we teach our children without using words that life is good. This is an incredibly powerful way to make a difference.

KC: No matter how consciously we limit what a young child is exposed to, they may see, hear or experience something that they have no context for understanding.  How can we help them process these events? 

HH: Horrific images go so deeply into the child that they cannot just simply erase them. We adults can’t erase them. What we see and hear lives in our consciousness, and also in our sub-conscience, but these images can be balanced by positive images and actions – like holding candlelit vigil. 

KC: How can we answer a child’s questions with truth, but without so many details that the trauma goes in deeper?

HH: Instead of going blah, blah, blah about what we know, listen to what the child is really asking. For example, they might have heard about a school shooting, and they might ask about the perpetrator. Was he bad? You can affirm that yes, he did bad things, and he had an illness. Simple, direct, honest answers help our children, but how we listen helps them even more. When we ask them what they think, we give our children a powerful message that what they say matters. What did you hear? How do you feel about it? Keep the focus on the child and not on the event.

KC: So we can respond in such a way that the impact of a traumatic event might fade.  How can we tell if it isn’t fading?

HH: I work with families through all sorts of loss. Loss of pets, homes, loved ones – and traumatic world events present us with loss – loss of innocence, security, connection. One metaphor is to say that some events pierce our souls like a shard of glass, and the work of a therapist is not to remove the glass, but to make the shards whole again.  We can start with loving, objective observance. Parents can pay loving attention to their child, and ask:

Are they sleeping? How to they awaken?

Are they raring to go? Or not?

Are they eating?

How do their hands and feet feel? Cold? Warm?

How is their complexion? Are cheeks rosy? Or wan?

How do they walk? What is their posture like?

Is there a sparkle in their eyes?

KC: These questions can help us observe a child of any age?

HH: Yes, and adults too. We may be seeing the impact of something happening at school or something from the broader world. And as children get older, they may ask for more information. They will start forming their own opinions about what they have encountered.

The teenagers around the country right now who are joining the protests – I am so proud of them. They see themselves rightly as human beings with something to say. The actions they are taking will help them stay resilient.  They are experiencing a certainty in their own sense of moral justice. As they feel outraged for what has happened to children across the country and the world, they are developing deep, deep empathy for others.

As parents and educators, again we need to step out of the way by avoiding the tendency to tell them what we think. We need to listen to them, and ask them what they feel, and what they believe is right.  This supports them in healing, and it supports their soul development.

KC: Is this how we can protect older children from becoming cynical? 

HH: Whereas the young child is best served by a sense that Mom and Dad know what is best, teenagers need us to be honest that we don’t have all the answers. We know what we want the world to be like, but we don’t know each day what the world will bring. When we develop our own capacity for flexible, open, loving thinking, then we show our children that despite these horrific events, the world is still filled with goodness. And beauty. We help them trust in truth. Through all of it, and at every age of their childhood, when we learn how to bring warmth and flexibility to our thinking, we deepen our connection with our children. These catastrophic events can bring our families closer together.

We asked Helena to show us
what her NURTURING ARTS practice looks like.

art therapist Helena Hurrell  1

While earning her degree in Anthroposophical Art Therapy in England, Helena worked with a student who was healing from the unresolved loss of his father. When this process began, the child was 5 years old. His emotional life was weak, and his self-esteem was compromised. Helena worked with the boy using watercolor and other mediums to re-establish his inner strength and well-being. These paintings were created in the therapeutic process.

art therapist Helena Hurrell 2

“My heart to your Heart” are among the words the child painted in this drawing, a message to his father. You see in the red box a safe, secure place of containment.

art therapist Helena Hurrell 3

Here is a bright sun shining in the sky, a tender green shoot rising upwards, beckoning new life – a picture far different from the  dark cloud of disruptive behavior he felt in early days of therapy.

Helena Hurrell is a longtime Waldorf early childhood teacher and the art therapist at WSRF. She also operates the nonprofit Helios Center in Carbondale, providing nurturing arts to children and adults.

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About Kathryn Camp

MOUNTAIN PARENT Editor & Designer • When Kathryn is not at her desk with MP, she cycles, snowboards, skis, writes fiction and keeps bees in downtown Carbondale with her teenage children, husband Rich, and their wayward husky-coyote Zelda.