Children’s Minds in the Line of Fire Blog
Children in a World at War
Mónica Cardenal

A child in Ukraine, all the children in the world. This thought reverberates within me, evoking the Middle East, Africa or Central America, just to mention some of the regions of the planet where children and adolescents suffer extreme violence in different forms. 

I’d therefore like to invite you to imagine the emotional world of a child who might have lost everything under the fire of violence. We can also ask ourselves what our role is as analysts in the face of such an emotional catastrophe, where there is much to do. At the same time, the task is delicate and complex. It is not only about the  furor of wanting to help at any cost. 

When cruelty emerges in a massive way, it is very difficult for us not to succumb to its impact but to continue thinking in an emotionally close manner to those who are suffering, especially children. I believe that in this context, rescuing individualities is crucial, a task which is inherent to psychoanalysis. I therefore remember Melanie Klein and Richard, their  evacuation out of London, the bombings, the improvised consultation room. All the fantasies that Richard displayed in the relationship with Klein. Both are brave; patient and analyst, for building a relationship in the midst of a line of fire. Today there are many brave people too. I feel joy at knowing that analysts can continue working in the worst circumstances with our method. In his precious paper, Adam Limentani (1987) goes through the answers eof the IPA and societies from the rest of the world during the years of the Second World War, from 1939 to 1945 and analyses developments and stagnations of psychoanalysis from those times.

Even though the war in Ukraine is geographically far from me, I am close in conversation with each colleague from that country and from countries assisting refugees. I am close to  the discomfort. Assistance to children is the most urgent; children displaced on their own, orphans, children who have seen the worst and have lost everything. 

So, dear colleagues, I try to understand what the emotional world of these children in our times will be like, in these wars, and what our task is. I do not want to become attached to any theoretical idea on trauma, I believe that might prove to be a bit sterile. I prefer to think about the children  closely, and focus on the capacities of the mind to be able to symbolise, as the only way to elaborate violence internally. When I write, I am inspired by my experience with refugee children and adolescents in Latin America in the last few years, through an organisation in Mexico.  They are children who flee from wars in their own countries in Central America.  Drug dealing,  gangs, child soldiers who have suffered extreme violence towards them or their loved ones. Most of the time they flee alone, sometimes with their mothers, who might die on the way. Second skin phenomena emerge as Esther Bick described, when the mind remains without an internal container object capable of sustaining and unifying the Self. In the presence of catastrophic events of any kind, such container objects can be destroyed or fragmented, leaving the Self without integration and support. This is experienced concretely at body level; somatic symptoms, false independence, reckless and impulsive conducts predominate; the Self defends itself by fantasising that it does not need anybody on whom to depend lovingly. We might wonder in which way traumatic events suffered throughout the children’s short lives test the capacity of the most mature aspects to sustain new  experiences in which pain might be tolerated, in order to grow from. Experience has shown me that whenever we can intervene psychoanalytically, children and young people have high hopes of leading a full emotional life. We now have new tools for assisting in during humanitarian crises (Special Times for street children and refugees, applied observations with pediatricians, brief interventions mother-baby or Work Discussion groups with volunteers or professionals who assist). Being close to the children means being able to help them be themselves and help them develop the receptive and introjective capacities of the mind, where the range of emotions - including the most negative ones - can be contained like the events which happen to them in and with the world around them.  

I will focus on a photo taken by the Argentine photographer Rodrigo Abd in Bucha, published in La Nacion newspaper on April 9th 2022.  A 6 year-old boy in front of his mother's grave, very close to his home. She died of depression, the article says, after spending too much time in a shelter, she refused to eat. The child and his 10-year-old brother started to take food and drink to the grave which had been improvised close to what had been their home. They also played near it. My feeling was not of sadness, I just thought that the mind has so many resources to carry on. The idea was theirs, since their mother refused to eat at the shelter and they wanted to remember her, have her internally we would say, eating. How can one find within oneself a comforting presence that can be an internal support in the face of the pain caused by such a traumatic loss? Maybe some of the first good experiences with that object can be one of the bases to investigate and work on for the recovery of the mind in situations of extreme violence and loss. As I have described, the possibility of having within oneself a containing object, which has been capable of giving the Self the emotional experience of being lodged within a receptive container during the first years of life, might be the only possibility the mind has to support itself in the face of the urgent demand and pain, and even to be able to accept the help that another provides externally. 

Rodrigo Abd/AP/Shutterstock

If we could be close to the emotional experience of a child, close to their way of constructing the world without imposing our theories, I believe we could be better analysts for them. Child psychoanalysis  works to make an emotional experience of learning about oneself, about bonds and the world, even when times are critical due to a pandemic, a war or other catastrophes. I like to think that our task is to help children help themselves, offering the alternative to acknowledge their own emotions as they arise, even in the most dramatic circumstances. 

Limentani A.. (1989). The psychoanalytic movement during the years of the war (1939–1945) according to the archives of the IPA. International Review of Psycho-Analysis, 16(1), 3–13.

Mónica Cardenal
Training analyst at the Buenos Aires Psychoanalytical Association
Associate Professor in Clinical Psychology and Infant Psychiatry  Postgraduate  Training at  the University Instituto,  Italian Hospital, Buenos Aires.
Coordinator of Infant Observation Seminar, Bick Method,  at  Italian Hospital 
Consultant of IPA Committee on Child and Adolescent Psychoanalysis
Chair of IPA Committee on Psychoanalytic Assistance in Crises and Emergencies   

Go back to Children's Minds in the Line of Fire Blog


You must login to leave a comment.

New Comment:


Edit Comment:

Attachment:      Delete

Subscribe to comments on the page:

Want to subscribe/unsubscribe on comments? Please click  here