Widespread blackouts struck Venezuela last week. In the dark, Rosa Larrauri’s mind raced. The little bit of food she’d managed to buy would go bad, and she wasn’t sure how she’d replace it. Her kids would miss school, and her plans to flee the country continued to be delayed.
Larrauri, her family and the rest of the country had been through this before. In early March, Venezuela experienced a collapse of its electrical grid that sent the country into darkness for nearly a week. The blackouts have added to the list of challenges people in the country face.
A combination of mismanaged government funds and the plummeting price of oil in this oil-rich nation has driven it into an economic meltdown. For the everyday citizen, this has translated into severe food and water shortages, crippling inflation, a collapse of the medical system and rampant crime.
While the government has denied that any crisis exists, a university study published in February 2018 found that 87% of Venezuelans were living in poverty.
When the blackouts hit last week, Larrauri found herself in bed, with little energy or desire to do much of anything, she said.
“What are we doing today, Mama?” asked her 10-year-old daughter, Sophia. “Are we going to play today? I’m hungry.”
While Larrauri worried about the future, her daughter forced her to come back to the present, she said.
“To her, it was obvious that life went on, even without electricity,” said Larrauri, 49, who is also mom to 15-year-old Nicolas.
That day, as Sophia prodded her, she got out of bed, determined to keep going – “for her,” Larrauri said. Her daughter needs a childhood, and she is determined to give her one, even as the country continues to plunge into further chaos.
This means giving Sophia the occasional treats: homemade pizza whenever cheese can be found in Maracay, where they live; ice cream if there’s money left after buying more nutritious foods as they become available.
Giving her daughter a childhood also means teaching her important life lessons in the middle of the crisis, Larrauri said.
’In this household, when we have, we give’
This is a time to teach children values, Larrauri said.
In a country where just about every staple food has become scarce, finding the most basic of things is both a luxury and an accomplishment. Whenever she does, she tries to share with others.
“Sometimes, I’ll have three kilos of sugar, and I’ll give some to my neighbors. People also help us when they are able,” Larrauri said. “At least my children know that in this household, when we have, we give. And when we don’t have, [food and supplies] will come from somewhere.”
A lesson taught out of necessity by a mom in Venezuela is nothing short of a lifelong piece of wisdom that could one day save her child’s life, explained Dr. Ken Ginsburg, a professor of pediatrics at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, co-founder of the Center for Parent and Teen Communication and author of “Building Resilience in Kids and Teens.”
“The lesson here is, when we have more, we share, and when we have less, we may receive without shame,” Ginsburg said.
When children are taught to give, they learn they can make a difference in someone else’s life; but they also learn that every human being ultimately needs to receive, he added.
“What allows you to receive is the knowledge that there is no pity on the other end. And you learn that by sharing during your times of plenty,” Ginsburg said.
People become resilient when they can turn to another human being and say, “I need a hand,” he said.
The power of human connection
From the very beginning of life, children are attached to their parents emotionally, explained Dr. Arthur Lavin, pediatrician and chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health.
A parent can be upset to learn that they have no electricity to meet their family’s needs, but their child may not care at the moment if it’s still light out and they can play with their mom and dad, he said.
But if the parent is traumatized, this inevitably has a direct effect on the child, even if they don’t understand the details of the situation, he added.
Sophia’s question about whether playing was in the plans for the day is 10-year-old language for “I need to know you are still present in my life” and “I want to make the abnormal feel as normal as possible right now,” Ginsburg said.
The human connection between a child and a parent is what ultimately makes the child thrive during the good and the bad times, he added.
“This doesn’t mean the parent should pretend it’s all OK,” Ginsburg warned. “What you want to demonstrate is, ‘I’m taking care of us as best I can, and we are going to get through this.’ “
When parents are upset, children are upset, but they don’t know why
If the mom is upset, the child knows it, even before any words are exchanged, Lavin explained.
“A lot of parents think, ‘Oh, I don’t want to raise a difficult subject that will upset [the kids],’ ” he said. “But if a parent is upset, the child is already upset. The only difference is that the child doesn’t know why they’re upset.”
Lavin encourages parents to talk to children about situations the family is facing at a level that is appropriate for their age, which parents can gauge based on the complexity of the children’s questions.
Left to interpret the situation on their own, many children will imagine a scenario that is worse than reality, Lavin added. “Telling them something bad is going on is going to be less scary than what they’re imagining.”
And although there is value in promoting resilience in times of difficulty, Lavin said, it is not the solution to the widespread trauma taking place in countries like Venezuela.
Resilience is not the answer to widespread suffering
“Resilience is not an answer to the fact that countries create trauma. It’s not an answer to the fact that trauma can go from parents into children,” Lavin said. “Those are wrongs that are wrong no matter how resilient the child is.”
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As Venezuela’s two governments continue to fight over whether humanitarian aid should be allowed into the country, as the population continues to sink deeper into malnutrition and as the death tolls in hospitals without electricity continue to rise; Larrauri continues the fight to give her daughter a childhood.
She doesn’t have a choice, she said.
“I tell her stories,” Larrauri said. “I tell her stories of a time when working hard enough meant you could have a job and that meant you could have a house and food. I tell her soon things will be like they used to.”
CNN’s Vasco Cotovio and Luis Graham-Yooll contributed to this report.