Today
Fri 7 May 2021

Reverend Joe Haward explores the impact of the Coronavirus on empathetic children and what we can do to reassure them that they are not helpless while the Government fails to reassure us at every turn

Holding our youngest daughter close, we can feel her shaking with fear, anxiety coursing through her body, an unwelcome intruder. Over recent months, this has become a common experience in our family home as the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic rocks the lives of our children. 

My youngest daughter is an empath. She has always been sensitive to the emotions of others, acutely aware of how others are feeling. As a toddler she (and we) found it incredibly difficult trying to understand the – at times – overwhelming burden this sensitivity had upon her.

Tears and rage often erupted in volcanic bursts as her feelings collided with those around her, confused emotions finding nowhere to be resolved. Over time, my wife and I learned how to help her understand her emotional depth and use her empathy in a way that gave her joy, not pain. Of course, we do not always get it right – we are parents after all – but as the years have gone by, we have watched her empathic nature blossom into compassion and kindness as she finds ways to help and care for those around her. 

However, the pandemic has been an overloading experience as she has witnessed the world, and all our lives, change dramatically.

We want the politicians to see my daughter shaking with fear, for them to understand that, if they had acted with integrity and competence, then her young life need not have had to be wracked with anxiety in the way that it is.


The Burden of Compassion

As parents, we are always walking that line of considering how much we tell our children and what we keep back in an effort to protect them.

The pandemic has pushed us all into difficult decisions as to what and how much we share. Personally speaking, my wife and I have always believed that our own children should have some kind of understanding as to how the world is. We teach them to read, question everything, study and explore.

So we have sought to be honest with our daughters, emphasising how loving our neighbour is found in trying to keep one another safe. For my youngest daughter that has felt like a great burden and responsibility.

“What happens if I give you Coronavirus Daddy?” (I suffer from Myalgic Encephalomyelitis)

“Will I die if I get ill?”

“Will Grandad die if he gets Coronavirus?” (He is very high risk)

As much as we seek to find ways to ease her anxiety, life is radically different. She hasn’t seen her grandparents, uncles and aunties for more than a year. Going on trips to the cinema is a distant memory. Her ballet lessons are now online. People that she knows have fallen ill with COVID-19. 

Her world feels out of control, and so, like many of us, she searches for ways to regain a sense of authority, ways to balance the anxiety that leaves her shaking in our arms some evenings.

For my youngest daughter, this looks like washing her hands – an act of control, verging on symbolic in its performance. Washing her hands seems almost like a moment of atonement, an occasion where she can rinse away the anxiety and cleanse herself of the fear that she might make herself or others ill.

Some nights, as she lays in my wife’s arms, we speak words of love and affirmation over her, trying to bring reassurance and comfort. 

We somehow want her to know that the responsibility to keep others safe isn’t hers but the adults – from her parents to the politicians, whose actions have led us to the national catastrophe of more than 100,000 COVID deaths.

We want the politicians to see my daughter shaking with fear, for them to understand that, if they had acted with integrity and competence, then her young life need not have had to be wracked with anxiety in the way that it is.

My daughter’s story will not be true of all children. Indeed, my eldest daughter has seen her stress and anxiety levels decrease by being at home full-time. Speaking with teachers and school leaders, they share a similar picture – some children are struggling with increased anxiety, whilst others are feeling less stressed and anxious. 


Somebodiness

The relentlessness of the pandemic is exhausting. The UK now has the highest number of COVID-19 deaths per million population in the world. It did not have to be like this.

But as pressure groups, linked to right-wing figures and Conservative Party politicians, seek to reopen schools quickly rather than safely, the relentlessness could well continue if infection rates remain high. 

My youngest daughter enjoys school and, as parents, we could not praise the teachers and leadership highly enough – they have been remarkable. But my daughter knows that being around lots of other people carries a risk, not only to her, but also to others. She felt the weight of that risk whenever she was physically in school. With her teachers, we are seeking how to remove that heavy burden, to ease her anxiety and enable her to flourish as the compassionate and creative person that she is.

Anxiety can quench imagination and creativity, leaving behind a desert of despondency and sadness. 

Our hope is that, in the midst of this crisis, even as the Government continues to fail its citizens, we can find ways to help creativity to thrive. I believe that both my daughters can discover the tools to imagine what the world can be like when compassion, integrity, and truth are put at the forefront. If nothing else, as a family, we can strive to model it in our own lives, seeking to provide a sense of individual agency – somebodiness – that everybody is somebody, and is not helpless or hopeless.

Perhaps, as we walk this path, we might ease my daughter’s anxiety.

To use a phrase of Dr Martin Luther King Jr., I refuse to believe that we are bound to the midnight of despair, where the starless night of corruption cannot give way to the day break of justice and compassion.

Such a day break world will be built by those who believe in their own “somebodiness” and individual agency: who are steered with love through the storms of overwhelming anxiety. I trust that my daughters will always find a way to believe in their own somebodiness and agency, to step out into a braver new tomorrow.

Reverend Joe Haward is a community and business chaplain

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