My mother grew up in Prague during World War II amid food shortages and the blare of air raid sirens. Surprisingly, she remembers that time as relatively free of stress and anxiety. She recalls observing her parents like a spy, closely studying how they reacted to each new wartime development. Because her parents stayed calm, projecting confidence that her family would be OK, my mother stayed calm, too. She accepted the challenges as a part of everyday life.
This is the story my mother tells of the war.
How children eventually tell their story of the pandemic will be determined in large part by those close to them.
Children reflexively orient to their caregiver’s every move, much as famed Austrian zoologist Konrad Lorenz’s devoted geese followed his every move from the moment they hatched. With no same-species maternal figure in sight, they had no choice but to look to him. Children are wired to align themselves with their parents, acting as they act and feeling as they feel.
In a study conducted at Johns Hopkins University, researchers had children ages 8 to 10 participate under two different conditions before taking a spelling test. In one, the parent was trained to act anxiously; in the other, to act relaxed. The children whose parents behaved anxiously experienced “affect contagion” – in effect, “catching” the anxiety from their parents. They followed the example the parents set.
Should parents, then, hide their negative feelings to protect their children?
In a paper in Journal of Family Psychology, Sara Waters and her co-authors conclude the answer is no. They randomly assigned parents to either suppress how they felt or to act naturally. They found that when parents were instructed to hide their feelings after a stressful event, they appeared less warm and engaged in their interactions with their children. As a result, the children experienced higher levels of stress. The bottom line: Children can tell when we are hiding our stress.
Parents should be authentic and normalize children’s emotional reactions while discussing the coronavirus, says Louise Dalton, a consultant clinical psychologist at the University of Oxford. Explaining to children, for example, that everyone in the family will take care of one another enables children to feel like they have a shared responsibility and are less alone with their anxiety.
Parents must walk a fine line, acknowledging their true feelings but without overwhelming children with their own fears. They serve as a reference point, and all the more so in unfamiliar situations. Understandably, this parental responsibility may feel daunting.
Eleven years ago, pregnant with my daughter, I received some simple but unnerving advice from a colleague. She said, “Remember: From the moment your baby exits the womb, she will be watching you. She will internalize how you respond to every person and situation.” I have kept this advice firmly in mind ever since, and sought to act accordingly.
I applied that advice more than a year ago, when New York reported its first coronavirus case. I remember the shock and disbelief in my daughter’s eyes as I explained that her school was closing due to the pandemic. As my grandparents had done for my mother, I tried to convey that we would be OK. I focused on what we could control; how we would occupy ourselves over the coming days (cooking meals, watching movies, reading books) and ignored what we could not control.
When parents reflect over the past 15 months, we may question whether we did everything right. With the unprecedented demands placed on parents and caregivers, we may not have managed to consistently model positive coping skills. We wonder, how will children remember this unique time in the coming months and years? In part, their memory will depend on their specific age during the pandemic.
In the first few years of life, children retain few experiences in their long-term memory. Ask anyone about their earliest memory and virtually no one reports instances of memory from before age 3. Fittingly, this three-year period is known as infantile amnesia. Sigmund Freud was the first to acknowledge that we don’t have access to memories from this period of childhood.
Memory in general for children under age 7 is unstable. Even beyond age 8, memory is more malleable than most people realize. The psychologist Frederic Bartlett is credited with introducing the idea that memory for an event is a construction. This means every time you remember your high school graduation, you may leave out critical details or include events that never occurred. Memories are not replicas of an event – they are modified and reconstructed every time they come to mind.
This malleability of memory means that we can help children reframe their perspective of potentially negative life events. Reframing is a frequently used tool in family therapy. It doesn’t mean that parents should deny reality or ignore negative feelings surrounding difficult moments. Rather, we can alter the narrative to take on a hopeful and resilient tone as opposed to a hopeless one.
Even if parents failed to perfectly model positive coping behaviors over the past 15 months, we can influence how children will remember this time. Parents can help children focus the lens on gains (such as extra time spent together) rather than solely on losses.
Ultimately, how children tell their story about the past year will determine how they remember it. And throughout life, these autobiographical memories become the stories that form the basis of who we are.
Karel is my mother’s Czech cousin. When we had dinner back in 2008 in Prague, I asked him questions about growing up during WWII. He smiled and said that time has a way of softening the edges of memory. In that moment, I understood what he meant.
Memories, whether of WWII or the pandemic, are not exact representations of what actually occurred; they change over time. And let’s hope they reflect an interpretation that is easy to live with.
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Anna-Lisa Cohen is a professor of psychology and chair of the Psychology Department at Yeshiva University.