Sarah is a doctoral (Ph.D.) student in Counseling Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and has an Ed.M. and M.A. in Psychological Counseling from Columbia University. Sarah was born and raised in Colombia, South America, and has lived in the Netherlands, Cyprus, and the United States.
In addition to studying, Sarah provides counseling services in English and Spanish and conducts research. Her research focuses on the experiences of minorities, identity development throughout the lifespan, gender issues, and the impact that oppression, discrimination, and prejudice has on mental health.
Throughout her career, Sarah has worked with several nonprofit organizations (NGOs) that serve minority communities, children, adolescents, and adults, and has served on the board of directors for two of them. She is passionate about helping refugees, their children, and mothers to achieve a bright future and is working with Bareeq to create programs and services that will increase the well-being and mental health of the community.
Coping with Trauma: Providing Support to Refugee Youth
Author: Sarah Arango
Reviewed by: Defne Koraman, Ph.D.
As of March 2014, approximately 9 million people in Syria have been displaced, with 4.2 million (47%) of them children. Providing support to children who have undergone severely traumatic experiences like war, loss, and displacement is essential to help them overcome these deeply impacting experiences and live a fulfilling life. Teachers and parents play a crucial part of these children’s everyday lives, as they can provide the child with consistency, safety, support, and motivation.
The effects of war and displacement on children can vary depending on a child’s age, the level of trauma, and the length of time the child was exposed to the traumatic event. For example, pre-school children usually show overt behavioral problems, such as aggression, over-activity, temper tantrums, bed-wetting, or increased dependency. These symptoms may also occur to older children and teenagers, in addition to depression, psychosomatic symptoms (physical illness or symptoms caused or aggravated by mental distress), lack of concentration, withdrawal, and self-harm, among others. Trauma can also be exacerbated if children continue to experience more harmful events, such as the loss of meaningful social relationships, experiencing violence within their family environment, and fear of abandonment due to a lack of emotional availability from parents.
Caring for Children who have Experienced Trauma
Caring for children who have gone through traumatic events can be stressful at times, but helping children throughout their journey of recovery is essential for their mental health and well-being. Some of the most important things to provide children with are a sense of support, consistency, and trust. Creating a consistent environment can be one of the most important parts of a child’s recovery. Part of keeping the environment consistent is trying to avoid startling the child, as children who have experienced trauma often develop “triggers”. A trauma trigger is an experience that reminds the child of a traumatic event, even though the “trigger” or experience itself may not be traumatic. The trigger could be a range of things, such as hearing a loud noise or seeing a parent or teacher react in a way they didn’t expect (such as yelling). Triggers are different for each child, so understanding what is particularly upsetting to each child can help reduce the triggers and reduce the stress that comes with this experience.
Punishment can also be difficult for children to understand and cope with, as it can be seen as an act of rejection and may increase feelings of shame and worthlessness that the trauma may have already induced. Since these emotions may already be present as a result of the difficult life experiences they have undergone, punishment can be very hard for a child to understand and process regardless of how the child may have coped with punishment prior to the traumatic event(s). Because of this, using positive reinforcement and communication is seen as a better way for an authority figure to produce the desired result from a child without creating further harm. Positive reinforcement differs from traditional punishment in that instead of yelling at a child or taking something away from a child when they do something wrong, you reward the good things they do. Positive reinforcement can be done by simply praising the child or by giving the child something that they enjoy (such as letting them have extra play time). In addition to using positive reinforcement, having a conversation with children about why something is unsafe or unhelpful can help decrease their negative behavior. Children, regardless of whether or not they have undergone a traumatic experience, often have little or no understanding as to why something is wrong, even though it may seem logical to an adult. If they do understand, they might be continuing the behavior because they do not know how to cope with the trauma, the problems they are facing, or how to process their emotions.
One thing to keep in mind for both parents and teachers is that having children talk about their traumatic experiences can be helpful to some children, but can be even more harmful to other children that are not ready to talk about it. Therefore, informing children that they have someone to speak to about their experience(s) if they need to is essential, however, pushing them to do so can often be distressing to them.
Parental support and communication are two of the most important factors in helping children who have experienced significant trauma. Communication between family members can create trust and encourage resilience in children, by bringing a sense of clarity to the child’s past and current situations. This can also increase a sense of collaborative problem solving and overall support.
Aside from parental support, maintaining routine activities in a child’s life is important to make them feel like some things in their life will remain constant. Following an experience where they may have lost many friends, their home, and their sense of safety, knowing that the next day will look the same, is very impactful. These routines can include reading a book before bedtime, having dinner with the family every night, or performing a specific activity on the same time, daily.
The trauma and stress that parents feel also have an impact on children. Parents should work on their own trauma and understand how it is playing a role in their relationship with their children. Often, parents take their frustrations out on their children by yelling or becoming emotionally absent. Children often feel and perceive their parents’ stress; for example, if they see that their parent is emotionally absent, they might react by acting out for attention. Self-care for parents is important for this reason; having your own support system, finding ways to release stress, or finding others to speak with will have a positive impact on the parents as well as the children.
Teachers also play a significant role in the students’ lives. Teachers are central to creating positive and constructive problem-solving skills between students and fostering self-esteem and support within the classroom. Schools are places where children spend much of their day and where they usually spend the biggest portion of time socializing with peers of their age. It is important to create “safe” spaces in schools, where safe means creating an environment where children feel they are accepted and where they can be open.
Having routines in the classroom can also help children. This can be done by informing students of what the lesson will consist of or simply by announcing that you will be switching to another activity in a certain amount of time. Allowing children to make their own choices about what activity they would like to do once or twice a day can also help. This can help children who have undergone trauma, as they may feel like they lack an ability to have control over their lives.
It is worth mentioning that many teachers experience emotional burden and compassion fatigue, as teachers play multiple roles in the lives of students who have experienced significant trauma. Many times they are both teachers and supports, so it is helpful for teachers to have support systems and take steps to reduce their stress and depression.
Creative Art Therapy
Both parents and teachers can use the following ideas. Creative art therapy allows children to express themselves through means other than speaking. Speaking about what feelings they are experiencing can often be very difficult not only because of a lack of vocabulary to express those emotions, but also due to the emotional pain it can cause. Art therapy is a way to share their stories and make meaning of it.
Storytelling is one way children can express themselves and this can be done through drawing, writing, dance, or drama. This provides children with a voice and empowers them because they are using their own ideas and agency to create art. These methods also provide them a way to express themselves through ways in which they feel most comfortable. Additionally, having activities that provide children an opportunity to express their hopes for the future can give them a sense of hope when they feel like there is none.
Recently, there has been an interest in studying how breathing exercises can help students and children. Breathing exercises can help to reduce stress, put the body in a calm state, help increase focus, and help people be “in the moment” versus focus on the past, future, or many other stressors around them. Breathing exercises can range from performing stretches and breathing slowly and steadily, to having a guided breathing exercise where children close their eyes and the teacher or parent make up a visual story that takes place in a peaceful location (such as a beach, desert, forest, etc.). Throughout these exercises, remind the child to pay attention to their breathing. Through teaching children to pay attention to their breathing and their movements it can help them gain skills to cope when they are frustrated, anxious or angry, when their “triggers” cause them to want to react negatively, and to learn the art of focusing for school as well.
Parental and teacher support, creative art therapy, and breathing exercises are some of the ways to support children who have undergone trauma. Children have shown to be incredibly resilient and with the right support from families and teachers, affected children have an opportunity to surpass these harmful events.