Two of the greatest fears children have, conscious or unconscious, whatever their circumstances, class, or race are the terror of abandonment and the fear of obliteration. Over time, all children in good enough environments, will have had repeated experiences of physical stability, loving, consistent, responsiveness from the caregiver, not having to wait too long for that response, and the opportunity to test out their first steps towards independence. This allows them to develop a feeling of internal security and integrity, the sense of home as a safe place, a haven from the outside world, and a belief in the capacity of their parents/carers to protect them.
Children in situations of uncertainty, danger, the possibility of imminent injury or death, do not have the opportunity for normal development: ordinary separation and gradual individuation in the context of a secure home and family are denied them. Ordinary responses to fear or danger are not available to them. ‘The body responds to extreme experiences by secreting stress hormones….meant to give us strength and endurance to respond to extraordinary conditions. People who actively do something to deal with a disaster- rescuing loved ones or strangers, transporting people to a hospital, being part of a medical team, pitching tents, or cooking meals – utilise their stress hormones for their proper purpose…..Helplessness and immobilisation keep people from using their stress hormones to defend themselves. When that happens, their hormones are still being pumped out, but the actions they’re supposed to fuel are thwarted……they keep fuelling fight/flight/freeze responses……In order to return to proper functioning, this persistent emergency response must come to an end. The body needs to be restored to a baseline state of safety….from which it can mobilise to take action in response to….’ (other forms of danger). ‘The Body Keeps the Score’ Bessel van der Volk 2014.
The most natural, instinctive thing we do to calm ourselves and others is to stroke, cuddle, rock and soothe. It gives a feeling of safety, love, protection. Palestinian children, whose homes are constantly under threat or attack, live constantly with primary sources of terror: abandonment and obliteration. However, these are not just early, internal world, primitive, infantile responses on the ordinary developmental path to the next stage of life. These are real fears of real abandonment and obliteration from the external world. Young children, too young to know what is happening, will sense something amiss, pick up their parents’ anxiety as they anticipate the arrival, not knowing when it will be, of the bulldozer, maybe a British JCB, will arrive. The NSPCC’s shameful acceptance of dirty money from JCB and JCB’s collusion in the destruction of babies’ nurseries, toddlers’, children’s, and teenagers’ bedrooms as their home is reduced to rubble.
They are forced to watch as their home is destroyed in front of them by a noisy, frightening, monster-like bulldozer. Any parent under these horrific circumstances would be forgiven for not being able to provide the most natural instinct: hugging, rocking, reassuring their terrified children. They are confronted with cruelty, sometimes mockery and their own helplessness, distress, and impotence. Their humiliation, their inability to protect their home and their children, their distress are exposed for all to see. Their helplessness in the face of heavily armed soldiers, often in great numbers, reduces parents to a state of impotence. If they resist, the consequences could be fatal.
The child’s developmental need to believe in their parents’ omnipotence is shattered forever, damaging the important sense of safety that this belief once held for them. Instead of it coming gradually over time, it is destroyed prematurely in the most frightening way. When the home, and everything that has been created, crafted, woven, painted, built is bulldozed into rubble, it is a reflection of the worthlessness, in the eyes of the destroyer, of the family itself.
A word about adolescence. Children moving into puberty have a developmental push towards independence but at the same time, a regressive pull back to childhood.
Children at risk of detention, abduction, imprisonment, have their emotional, psychological, and sometimes, physical, development compromised. Their place of safety – the home – is vulnerable to invasion by heavily armed soldiers in the early hours of the morning, which is a terrifying, shocking awakening from sleep. Those detained may fear their detention could lead to the destruction of the family home.
Young adolescents are forced back into the role of a helpless child, their bodies no longer their own, so their physical integrity is lost, taken over by others. Their bodily functions are on public display if they are unable to control their bladder or their bowels when in a state of terror or they are not allowed to use the toilet. At a time when a child’s body should be very private, it can become the focus of shame, pride, embarrassment, when they are exposed to hostile strangers’ eyes.
Children’s sudden, rapid loss of confidence in their parents to protect them comes prematurely, before the natural stage of disillusion that creeps up on all of us in adolescence when we discover, over time, that our parents are not the idealised versions we had believed them to be.
There is no safe place, no secure base. There is the loss of parental protection, along with public humiliation and shame. Terrifying adults visiting violence upon the family is both shocking and outrageous. Children are faced with the trauma of the violent wrenching away from the family home, abandonment, and fear of obliteration.
Fortunately, there will be youngsters who have been able to internalise the love and sense of security from parents, relatives, community, or other significant adults.
However, children returning from detention after prolonged separation, injury, isolation, and body shaming will find it hard to settle back into the family home. They may emerge from detention having developed a number of physical and psychological defences: continuing their own isolation, rage at perceived slights from others, inability to have physical contact, withdrawal from the world, nightmares, wetting and soiling, mutism, depression, excessive bravado, mania, aggression, hatred of vulnerability in others, dissociation, substance misuse, the list goes on.
The routine sadism and carefully timed assaults on a child’s home and family are just one part of the systematic brutalisation of children in order to break their spirit, disrupt their attachments and their capacity to relate to others. Hyper-alertness, a strong startle response, anger, fear, nightmares, and flashbacks continue to flourish in an environment where there is no secure base externally. There may be no space in their lives to pause, process, heal the trauma.
However, despite all of this, a lot of families and communities will have built a secure base internally for their children and one of the many triumphs of Palestinians is their strength to retain their humanity, integrity, and their capacity for love.
Teresa Bailey, Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist
UK-Palestine Mental Health Network firstname.lastname@example.org
Van der Kolk, B.A. (2015). The Body Keeps the Score, Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma. UK: Penguin Random House Bion, W. (1962).
Learning From Experience. London: Karnac Books. Winnicott, D.W. (1958).
Collected Papers. Through Paediatrics to Psycho-Analysis, London: Tavis-tock Publications Winnicott, D. (1960).
The theory of the parent-child relationship. International Journal of Psycho-analysis, 41:585-595.
Below is a poem written by Dennis Brutus, anti-apartheid activist in the time of South African apartheid. I think it is relevant for the people of Palestine in the time of Israeli apartheid.
Teresa Bailey participated in the ICAHD UK webinar on 23rd June 2021 where she gave this presentation.