Tag Archives: paediatrics

Why professionals are distressed by children’s distress

The problem is how we can bring pain and anxiety back into the experience of professionals who work with children.”

Cover of 'Two Year Old Goes to Hospital'What fascinating words. They are calling for increases, rather than reductions, in the anxiety felt by professionals responsible for the care of children.

These are words spoken by James and Joyce Robertson in 1970.* When it comes to understanding the emotional needs of young children, the Robertsons were some of the most influential, bravest thinkers of the 20th century.

I am quoting them now because I think their words are as relevant today as they were 45 years ago. We are not anxious enough about young children’s needs. Another way of saying that is: we adults often find children’s distress so awful that we are unable to offer children the empathy and care that would allow them to recover.

It’s a strange thing for me to write. I talk all the time about the deleterious impact of fear. I talk about the limits of child protection policies. I talk about the need for us to challenge fear. Yet here I am now, joining the Robertsons in calling for more anxiety – or rather, calling for a different kind of anxiety.  Another way of putting this would be to call for more compassion, but the language of anxiety gives us a more useful purchase on the problem.

Why would I choose the language of anxiety? The answer is that our anxieties for ourselves are causing us to collectively deny the depth of children’s pain.  Children’s distress is too sharp for us, as adults, to risk feeling ourselves. So we tell ourselves, consciously and unconsciously, that it’s not ‘that bad’, that a child will get over it.  We tell ourselves, as professionals, that because we intend to do good, that is what we achieve. Way too often, though, we are fooling ourselves – and we are doing so at children’s cost.

The Robertsons said it more eloquently than me, all those years ago:

“Although there is everywhere good will and good intention towards young children… [progress in] work with children stagnates because the common defence against pain allows the acuteness of the problem to be dulled, as [if] by a tranquillizer.”

“The major obstacle to suitable care is neither practical difficulty nor lack of knowledge. It is that, whatever level of intellectual understanding may obtain throughout the professions, the appropriate sense of urgency and alarm is missing, or is dampened down.”

The fact that the Robertsons were courageous enough to say such things two generations ago gives me the impetus to renew their concerns today.

What sorts of things have I observed that fuel my concerns? Continue reading