|Outreach N° 97 - Children in especially Difficult Circumstances - Part 2: Children Affected by Catastrophes (OUTREACH - UNEP - WWF, 70 p.)|
(Children over 3 years old)
SUGGESTIONS FOR USE teachers, parents, youth leaders: To help recognise and understand the effects of war and social conflicts on a child's development, and to adapt and adopt the suggestions for helping students with difficulties.
Children with satisfactory development are able to:
* Relate well to others - the family, adults and other children
* Understand social rules, and the difference between RIGHT and WRONG, and enjoy giving affection to others
* Reason, create, imagine, plan an experiment; feel themselves to be of value in their family, school and community
* Look after themselves, e.g. keep themselves clean and tidy
Children have basic needs:
Physical needs - water, food, hygiene, housing, clothing, health care
Security and Affection - Children need to feel secure and loved. They benefit from a good family environment. They gain confidence and security through communicating and playing with the people nearest them. Education within the family also contributes to their social development. Through the family, children learn the customs of the community in which they live and its social rules.
Praise and recognition - Children need to feel accepted as they are, in spite of their faults. They also need attention and recognition for their abilities. Praise and recognition help develop their self-confidence and make them feel that they are of value.
Responsibility - Little by little, children should be given greater responsibility, both within and outside the home. In this way, they feel themselves to be useful, and this in turn helps them to gain self-confidence. They also learn to develop a sense of initiative. Play - While exploring, experimenting and playing, children learn:
- the possibilities and limitations of their bodies
- the physical nature of the world and the characteristics of objects
- to solve practical problems
- to relate to others
- social rules
- to confront difficult situations
Children's make-believe games help them to understand and explore their daily lives.
New experiences - Without new experiences or stimuli, children cannot develop their knowledge or their abilities. For example, in order to learn to talk and to extend their vocabulary, children need people who like to talk and communicate with them and who will encourage them to do the same.
Children's needs at different ages
Although all children have the same basic needs for a healthy development, taking the age of the child into consideration helps to identify these needs:
1) The pre-school child
Young children are very dependent on care within the family. They suffer a great deal when they are separated from their closest and best-loved relatives, and when they do not have their own family they need a substitute one.
However, being in a substitute family is not enough. They need adults who can give them individual attention and who can encourage them to play, talk and explore.
2) The school age child
At this age, children become more independent: they already help the family in the fields or at home. They are more aware of social rules of RIGHT and WRONG, and of social conflicts, particularly among family members.
They can take on greater responsibility at home and at school, and be involved in discussing decisions that affect them.
3) The adolescent
Adolescents are in a stage of life when they undergo many physical and emotional changes. They are also in the process of separating from the security of their families and establishing their own relationships with the outside world.
Adolescents are more aware of their physical development and begin to have friends of the opposite sex.
They like to be treated and respected as adults, and are more involved in the taking of decisions that affect their lives. The greater their level of integration into school organisations, the better their attitudes towards education.
Adolescents need opportunities to reason and to express their opinions. They are also able to take on responsibilities.
Children in difficult circumstances
Disasters - floods, drought, famine, disease - and war and its consequences - violence, flight, displacement, loss, hunger, poverty, and so on - break up and disrupt a normal healthy pattern of life. The consequences of these difficult circumstances are that children's basic needs are not met:
Material needs are not satisfied - When children are cold, hungry and without shelter, they do not develop well and become sick quickly.
Lack of affection and security - When adults are worrying about their situation, they cannot give their children the affection and security they need for proper physical, mental and emotional development. Displaced children, orphans and unaccompanied children may have lost the structure of family and community life that provided them with protection and security. When violence and catastrophe happen daily, children lose their knowledge of normal, good behaviour. They lose their trust in adults who act violently.
Lack of praise and recognition - When adults are too worried or unhappy to notice them, children may feel unimportant or useless. If they are not supported and cared for, they feel that they have been abandoned by the community and society.
Responsibilities inappropriate to age - War and other circumstances often force children to take on heavy responsibilities, such as orphans taking care of younger siblings. When children have to care for themselves, they have little time for play and to have fun.
Lack of new experiences - Children cannot play, concentrate or learn unless their basic needs are satisfied and they are stimulated. Interruptions to school life mean that the experience gained through schooling is irregular.
Children's reactions to difficult circumstances
The following reactions are common in children in difficult circumstances. Not all children have the same reactions: it varies depending upon a child's situation, the child's temperament, age, home environment and relationship with his/her family. Those who are separated from their families or who have witnessed the death of a family member are likely to have more marked reactions. A death in the family may move a shy child to withdraw, while an assertive child may become more aggressive:
Thinking a lot about experiences of violence
Children who have experienced horrific acts of violence either directly or upon members of their families constantly relive the experience. A young child who, for example, saw her parents die in a hut set on fire by armed forces, cannot forget this horrific image.
Feeling afraid The same child does not feel secure, she wants to be close to an adult and does not want to stay home alone. She is scared when she hears a shot, shouting or any noise that reminds her of her experiences of violence.
Children feel sad because of their bitter experiences. They react with pain and sadness to the loss of loved ones, home and belongings.
Getting angry easily
They feel constantly irritated and lose their tempers at the slightest thing, without being able to control themselves.
Difficulty in sleeping
Children often sleep badly because they are afraid; they wake during the night at the slightest noise, and have nightmares about their experiences.
Lack of concentration and interest
Children are unable to concentrate or learn when they are suffering and afraid. They are easily distracted, both at home and at school, and are not interested in games or other activities.
Feeling ill and having pains
Fear and sadness can affect the body:
- lack of energy
- lack of appetite
- the heart beats violently, especially when the child is afraid
- headaches or bodily aches
Children are always restless and in constant movement; they want to do everything at the same time. They may be over-excited, or behave in surprising ways.
Not trusting other people
In particular, children do not trust adults, since they failed to protect the children when protection was needed.
Lack of self-confidence
Children feel abandoned and have no self-confidence. They can lose the hope of having a good future. In particular, girls who have been raped lose confidence in others.
Children's reactions at different ages
Age affects the way a child understands events, the way he or she reacts to them, and the way he or she will absorb the help that is offered. Here are some general observations on how children react to very stressful experiences depending upon their age:
1) The pre-school child
Young children often become very fearful following stressful situations. It is common for them to react strongly to all things that directly or indirectly remind them of the situation. Very young children do not understand the concept of death: they expect the dead person to return. Those who lose a parent may develop a strong fear that other family members may be killed. They often use fantasy activities as a way of trying to master the impact of what has happened to them by recreating the situation over and over in play. Signs of stress to watch out for:
- anxious attachment
- separation anxiety
- regression to earlier development steps (e.g. thumb-sucking)
- loss of new skills (e.g. bedwetting)
- nightmares and night terrors.
See example in box 1.
Box 1: David
David is just three years old. He saw his father, with whom he
was very close, being killed. He has been crying sorely for some days. He is
always clinging to his mother's dress and following her everywhere like a small
shadow. He screams if he thinks he is going to be left alone. He will not accept
care from others - not even his older sister, whom he loves very much! He
refuses his food, he does not want to play, he does not smile, and sits sad and
silent. He keeps asking for his father over and over again, because he does not
yet understand about death. The memory of what he saw will fade, even though his
anxiety may stay behind.
2)The school-age child
Around seven and beyond, children can identify more clearly with others. They are more able to recall events in a logical way, and to understand the meaning of what has happened to them. They know that death is final and irreversible. After a very stressful experience, children become very fearful of their environment and of others. Their sense of justice and moral and social behaviour may be distorted by war and other stressful experiences. Young children use fantasy to deal with very stressful experiences: in play activities or reenactments they may prevent the stressful event from happening or have a different outcome to counteract their feelings of helplessness. This may make them feel more guilty, blaming themselves for not having done enough.
Signs of stress to watch out for:
- poor concentration, restlessness and learning disorders
- anxiety (e.g. rocking, stuttering)
- physical illnesses or complaints of 'aches and pains'
- physical aggressiveness towards others
- extreme withdrawal, (e.g. quiet, showing no feelings)
- regression to an earlier age
- sleeping problems
See example in box 2.
Box 2: Faustina
Faustina had been taking care of her little brother of three. The family lost him in their burning hut one night when their village was set on fire. Faustina is eleven years old and goes to school, but she has difficulties in listening properly to what the teacher is saying and in doing her lessons. Instead she is always thinking of what happened that terrible night. Her teacher is angry with her for not paying attention. The teacher does not know what she is thinking about. Sometimes Faustina complains of aches in her head, stomach and joints.
Faustina is sad. She also feels guilty, and that its her fault that her little brother was lost. She wants to be alone, but at the same time, that does not feel so good. Sometimes she wants to talk a lot about what happened, at other times, she is silent. At the moment, she feels she can't talk about anything else. It is difficult to talk to her parents because they are themselves so sad and worried. At the moment, it feels as if they and she are living in different worlds, and Faustina does not know how she can comfort them.
She is very afraid that the village and her family will be attacked again. Sometimes she has nightmares about this, and also about what happened.
Faustina needs a good friend to talk to! Somebody who will listen to her, and let her cry if she wants to. She needs a teacher who knows what has happened to her and understands that she needs kind words and encouragement at that moment. She also needs help to be able to share the burden of grief and guilt with her parents, so that they can mourn together, and support each other.
Source: Jareg, E., "Helping children cope in especially difficult circumstances", Lessons Learnt, No. 2 (Redd Barna, Norway (1991) Illustration by Margaret Tredgold.
In a stressful situation, adolescents are often treated as adults. They may function like adults, but they lack emotional maturity and require the help of adults. Unlike young children, most adolescents do not use fantasy or play to cope with stressful experiences. They are more able to talk about what has happened, but may require assistance to share their feelings. While adolescents are in the process of separating from their families, a forced separation may leave the adolescents alone and isolated. For adolescents, peers are a very important source of support.
Signs of stress to watch out for:
- self-destructive behaviour
- psychosomatic complaints.
See example in box 3.
Box 3: Amelia
Amelia feels and behaves very much like Faustina. At fourteen, she lost both her parents and her aunt in an attack. She cries often. The biggest change in Amelia, who used to be a bright, friendly girl, is that she stays inside the darkness of her hut instead of being together with her girlfriends. Even during the day, she can suddenly get clear pictures in her head of the terrible things that happened. At night she has difficulty in going to sleep, as she worries about her two younger brothers who are staying with another aunt. She feels responsible for their future - but how will she manage? Amelia used to love school, but now she has lost interest. Also, she has to cultivate her parents' land.
Sometimes her problems feel so huge that she thinks about taking her own life. This is a very secret thought. She may even carry this out, especially if she does not get any help.
Source: Jareg, E., "Helping children cope in especially difficult circumstances", Lessons Learnt, No. 2 (Redd Barna, Norway (1991)
Illustration by Margaret Tredgold.
When children and adolescents show their feelings, people may think the children are behaving badly. In other instances, children may show no signs of stress on the surface, but still have fears and problems which need to be sorted out.
Reactions of children may last a long time. For example, after the death of a close friend or relative, children may feel sadness and also angry, frightened, confused and unable to accept the death. The feelings are likely to be strong, and may last for a long time after the death. If, at a later time, children experience other losses, such as a good friend moving away to another place, all the feelings connected with the death of the loved ones may return.
How to help children in difficult circumstances
Children need help from adults and other children.
In the family, parents (or other adults caring for the children) need to understand the importance of listening to children's thoughts and fears, discussing and explaining things to them, being honest and truthful to them, planning things together, and giving children a second chance when they make mistakes.
The children can be helped by a home and school environment that gives them affection and security, and where adults and other children listen to them, take account of their feelings and put their fears in perspective. To provide a caring environment, adults also need help and support from others in the community. Teachers or organisers can encourage children to talk about things which worry or frighten them.
Children may find it difficult to talk directly about their problems. It is important to listen carefully to what children are saying and watch what they do; this often explains how children feel.
* Listen to children; allow them to share their feelings and their desires.
* Watch how children behave, and listen to what they do not or cannot say.
* Reassure children by providing information regarding normal reactions to stressful situations.
* Help children understand what has happened to them, and tell them about any decisions or future plans concerning their care.
* Provide affection and security by creating a consistent daily schedule.
* Provide opportunities for play especially group play.
* Return children to school or community activities if they are willing to return.
* Encourage adolescents to share their experiences with their peers.
* Involve adolescents in decisions or actions to be taken on their behalf.
* Discuss with adolescents their role in rebuilding the community when normalcy returns.
* Notice when friends are sad or worried
* Talk and play together
* Help solve other children's problems