Four Challenges for Children Amid Our World’s Traumas

A Letter to Children by Gilbert W. Kliman, MD, HFI Board Chairman*
Saturday June 6, 2020

The Harlem Family Institute knows that recently there was a great day for space when Spacex launched two astronauts to the International Space Station from Florida, but it wasn’t such a good day for the Earth.

In fact, it was another bad day for all of us on the ground. That is the truth. Children, families, and whole populations in our own and many nations are facing four mental-health challenges. They are called crises because all are dangerous. All four crises require children to face very painful truths.

The latest of the crises is continuing clarity of evidence that black people are being killed by police. The whole world’s children see this painful truth for themselves. The truth is on modern videos made by witnesses to the murders. Protests and riots are happening as thousands of people see those videos and are outraged. After four hundred years have passed since the United States was founded with African American slaves as cruelly used helpers, the effects of that cruel history are still with us. Some estimates are that a black man in the United States has a one-in-one-thousand chance of being killed by a policeman, and that is a greater cause of death than many diseases. This injustice cannot be tolerated by white, black or any citizens, yet it keeps happening. That is the truth.

A second challenge is that millions of mostly older people they love are getting sick, and many are dying from a Covid-19 pandemic. Many of us know that the pandemic is a crisis that has been warned against for decades, but our current government was unprepared. It ignored the warnings, even used denial and avoidance of scientific truth. An awful mental-health aspect of the children’s need to cope is very hard on adults. That is the children must ultimately recognize that this pandemic crisis was foreseeable, preventable and that hundreds of thousands of deaths could have been reduced by honestly acting grownups. That painful recognition of adult shortcomings is required so we can prevent future pandemics. That is the truth.

The third mental-health challenge is that millions of previously employed people are suddenly unemployed. This crisis about money is because of the pandemic. As should have been expected and prepared for by the U.S. and other governments, many children whose caregivers lack money are hungry. They are at increased risk of malnutrition and are seeing their parents and caregivers depressed, irritable and helpless in the face of economic hardships. The U.S. and other governments have passed emergency laws to help the millions of suddenly unemployed. But the laws aren’t enough and often don’t even work to provide financial help to the unemployed. Lines for food distribution sometimes are miles long, filled with hungry people, many of them unable to feed their vulnerable children. That is the truth.

The fourth mental-health challenge is that preventable climate change threatens the lives of all future generations. Again, this dreadful stress was foreseeable, a preventable crisis. Damage to our planet and its many forms of life could have been reduced by honestly acting grownups. To help children with these enormous stressors, there is one necessary remedy without which little else will work. The remedy is that adult acceptance and advancement of scientific knowledge and honest adult leadership are required about both the pandemic and climate change. Adult honesty and facing facts will help children become more resilient and mentally healthier. That is the truth.

While the world’s politicians struggle to bring justice, food and economic stability to our nation — and while pandemic scientists search for better tests, treatments, cures and vaccines — parents, teachers and caregivers everywhere have the opportunity to improve their children’s knowledge and mental health. At the same time, our children deserve to know that their planet can probably be saved by listening to historians, honest leaders and climate scientists. Adults cannot seem to do this listening very well, especially at governmental levels. Children will have to grow up in a world whose races, resources, climate and all its living creatures have literally been threatened by the mistakes, ignorance, deliberate denials, greed, political motives and even selfish dishonesty of grownup leaders. That is the truth.

Unaccustomed as adults are in helping children face painful truths, we must do just that. With small children we can begin with pediatric doses of truth. We need the spread of truth from protests, government, school and family sources in order to inspire trust in children. Children will usually be frightened by protests. Usually and fortunately, most will have enough food and be the least physically sickened by the new virus. They will suffer mentally as they see hunger, violent protests, lose loved ones, often becoming orphaned and especially losing grandparents. Surviving grownups will have to help the children mourn while growing up. In some nations, children will grow up caring for bereaved younger siblings. That is not an easy psychological task. That is the truth.

Children are beginning to know that they will live through the epidemic and yet be living in a planet damaged by racism, dishonesty, injustices, food shortages, inequalities and climate change. We hope they rise to the challenge of becoming mentally active, curious, and educated. By mastering severe world-wide stresses, children can grow up to lead the world into political, scientific and medical progress. We will need their help as well as current adult world-wide cooperation to overcome our planet’s problems. That is the truth.

There are many other crises, injustices and challenges that adults aren’t solving or where they aren’t even listening to the victims. Children will have a hard job to make up for crises their parents couldn’t understand and solve. We at the Harlem Family Institute hope and try our hardest to help children do better. That is also the truth.

* Dr. Kliman received the American Psychoanalytic Association President’s 2020 Humanitarian Award for his lifetime psychoanalytic leadership in treating and advocating for underserved and traumatized children worldwide.