In crises like this, children are the most affected and demand maximum care. It becomes very difficult for adults to deal with the questions and fears that children develop during such times.
--By Rajiv Saxena
The April 25 7.9 magnitude earthquake and its aftershocks have badly bruised the body and spirit of Nepal. Over 8000 lives have been lost, according to official estimates. The number of disappearances is unknown but frightening. One has no idea of what lies under the debris of nearly 800,000 destroyed and damaged houses.
The cataclysmic natural calamity has traumatized the Himalayan country. The physical damage can be taken care of over a period of time but what about the psychological impact of the disaster on people, especially children?
If an entire community is affected by death and ‘disappearances’, then it is necessary, apart from the interventions by individuals, to have psycho-social models for the community as a whole.
“Grief and Disappearance: Psycho-social Interventions” by Barbara Preitler, a forthcoming title from SAGE, analyses psycho-therapeutic practices that have been used to counsel people who have suffered loss in the wake of natural exigencies similar to what is being experienced by millions in Nepal today.
In crises like this, children are the most affected and demand maximum care. It becomes very difficult for adults to deal with the questions and fears that children develop during such times. Therefore, it is of crucial importance to assist adults in order to support them in assisting the children. Prof Barbara Preitler with her own experiences as a psychotherapist has developed techniques that can help adults to keep a level head and heart during such difficult times.
Prof Preitler says that in situations of crisis, children are often expected to behave especially mature. While this is what the situation demands, they should also be allowed to have certain ‘islands’ where they are allowed to be children or even behave in a particularly childish manner.
She writes: “Especially in the middle of a crisis situation it can help children if you create safe islands for them, situations in which, despite the general instability surrounding them, they can feel safe at least once a day.”
Life may be suspended. But once a couple of days have passed, it is generally beneficial to return to one’s state of normality as much as possible. Normality supports the children in overcoming traumatic situations and helps them to understand that a normal life still exists. If their parents are too overwhelmed by a certain traumatic event, then teachers, relatives or social workers can assist in establishing the routines of normality for the children for some time. From the many therapeutic suggestions provided by Prof. Preitler, a few are listed here.
Games: Play with them. The best games to play during such difficult times involve all children at the same time without creating a competition between them. (Where there is a winner there is a loser as well—and these children have to deal with enough loss as it is. There is no need for them to face it in games as well!)
Preitler suggested games:
• Hand clapping: All participants stand in a circle and pass a clap along the circle. First, you start out slowly. Then, gradually, the clap travels faster and faster from one child to the next. The children have the choice between clapping only once — then the clap keeps on getting passed along in the same direction — or clapping twice—then the clap changes direction.
• Movement around the circle: One child starts out with a specific movement of their choice. One child after the other repeats the movement, letting it pass through the circle like a wave. Then the next child presents a move that gets passed along through the circle, until all children have had a chance.
• One child starts by saying a single word that could be the beginning of a sentence. The next person repeats this word and adds a second word and so on. The words should follow grammatical rules to build a sentence. Let’s see what sentence the group will create.
• We can do a similar exercise on a black board as well. One child starts out with one line, the next continue by adding another line — each child can draw once or twice. In the end, we have a picture created by the group. Now we can ask somebody to be an art expert and explain what we can see.
And there are many more you also can create yourself. These kinds of games need little or no materials and can be played in the span of a few minutes, or for longer, if desired. Encourage children to play! Give them space for their games!
Story telling: All children like to listen to stories. Through the power of their imagination, they can travel to the places in the stories. Stories work well as ‘islands’ in days of stress, because the children get a chance to sit down for a while and listen to a story where the world is in order and where everything eventually leads to a happy ending. It might be good to tell positive stories before going to bed to calm the children’s minds and set them at ease.
Transitional objects: Children might need objects representing their loved ones to help them handle their fears and situations of separation. Therefore, children should have such ‘transitional objects’, like a little toy given to them by their father, or a picture of their mother, etc. They should be allowed to keep these objects with them wherever they go, even to school.
Younger children especially might only feel safe if their doll or teddy or even a specific piece of cloth is with them. Allow this! Children who do not have such a transitional object to help them yet can even be invited to choose such an object.
Rituals: Rituals can help to control fear by creating a routine, a state of normality. Rituals performed as a group also create a feeling of belonging together for the members of this group, which helps to reduce the ever-threatening feelings of loneliness and helplessness.
Families can perform rituals on a regular basis, such as, every morning and evening (for some families, this might be done in a religious context). School classes or children’s clubs can perform rituals as well — existing, traditional ones or rituals created especially for this group. All these rituals can help in re-establishing a feeling of safety and stability, of being protected by the group.