In 2001 when the 9/11 attacks took place in USA, most of us were glued to the television sets, not realizing that our children who prima face seemed involved in their play were a witness to the trauma and were being affected by it. It mattered little that the incident took place in a different continent, miles away; the trauma was experienced by everyone around the world, including children. I have treated many children and adults alike after the earthquake of Latur in 1993 or more recent still 26/11 in Mumbai and the German bakery attack in Pune who were emotionally suffering after the traumatic terrorist attacks. But one of the most striking of them was this because we often think that a toddler who seems to be engrossed with his play is unaware and thereby immune to such events in our lives.
However, it is a well researched fact that stress is transferred from parents / care givers to children. They may viscerally transmit their own feelings of anxiety, rage and helplessness, and in doing so, colour the child’s internal model of self and the world. When caregivers are threatened or frightening, the intentional human to human quality of the trauma causes more severe negative consequences for the child than trauma from accidental causes (for example, a flood, fire or injury). In truth, however, all trauma may engender feelings of victimization, loss of control, despair and hopelessness and beliefs that the world is unsafe and life unfair. Young trauma victims often come to believe there is something inherently wrong with them, that they are at fault, unlovable, hateful, helpless and unworthy of protection and love. Such feelings lead to poor self image, self abandonment, and self destructiveness. Ultimately, these feelings may create a victim state of body mind spirit that leaves the child/adult vulnerable to subsequent trauma and re victimization.
In my next group Play Therapy session I saw to the trauma unfold itself. Rohan, 2 years old was a toddler having difficulty adjusting to the play school and was referred to me by the play school. He had been coming to me for the past 2 months and was gradually transferred to group play therapy sessions as he was now seemingly adjusting to the school. That day I was shocked at the emerging theme in the play session. As usual the 5 children assembled on the mattress and removed individual toys to play with. Shilpa started playing with blocks. Suddenly Rohan who was playing with an aeroplane and was keeping an eye on that Shilpa was making a tower; ran towards her with his hands outstretched and banged his plane on the tower that she had made and breaking instantaneously into hysterical laugh once the tower fell. Tears filled Shilpa’s eyes and she started crying softly while the others looked on. I was surprised by Rohan’s behavior as he had never in the past shown any signs of aggression, usually keeping to himself and playing with his cars / aeroplanes. I encouraged him to verbalize what he was playing and he referred to the bombings of the twin towers.
Play is a very powerful and natural medium through which children communicate. What happened in the group play session was an enactment of what the Rohan was observing around him. Enactment such as this helps children to understand the complex world around them. It also helps them to grasp and cope with difficult emotions of elders as well as their own reactions. In play children feel safe enough to demonstrate all this as it is an indirect manner of communication. Play session also helps them to work out their emotions and replace some with more constructive manner of communication. Instead of reprimanding the child (as usually the caregivers do), the play therapist attempts to understand the play and communicate the same to the child. This helps him to develop a thinking awareness about himself giving him the possibility to choose his actions. The failure of caregivers to sufficiently protect a child may be experienced as betrayal and further contribute to the adversity of the experience and effects of trauma. Traumatic stress may be transmitted by parents to their children.
School Principal and teachers play the role of care givers in school. Their function therefore goes much beyond the traditional belief of imparting knowledge or looking after their physical safety. Incident such as the recent attack by the MNS workers on the principal of DAV school can be quite traumatic for the children. This is especially true when the conflict is against the authorities (caregivers/ teachers / Parents) who are supposed to look after them. Children’s sense of safety both physical and emotional is thereby severely disturbed. If this is an ongoing conflict, the disturbance is more; effects of which mimic those of children of divorce. Those who are not addressed directly by the caregivers and kept in the dark face greater stress. Their curious minds seek information available through grape vines and media, leaving them more confused, misinformed and feeling disoriented. When the caregivers, in this case the principal and teachers directly impart information about the incident and address their anxieties, it reinstills faith in the protector’s ability to safeguard the child. Schools need to think along these lines too along with the safety drill. Just doing the terror drill without providing the emotional support needed by the topmost schools leaves a huge gap in the holistic development of the child.
Posttraumatic symptoms may encompass one or more of a broad range of behaviors, including the following:
§ Difficulty sleeping, eating, digesting, eliminating, breathing or focusing
§ A heightened startle response and hyper alertness
§ Agitation and overarousal, or underarousal, withdrawal or dissociation
§ Avoidance of eye contact and/or physical contact
§ Terrified responses to sights, sounds or other sensory input that remind the child of the traumatic experience(s),
§ Preoccupation with or re-enactment of the traumatic experience
Reestablishing safety or creating it for the first time involves setting up an external structure that provides a predictable, consistent routine for a child/youth and making sure their basic physical, emotional and social needs are met. Thus having their normal school routine is crucial. This also means to pay emotional attention to the individual child’s needs and allowing them to express their emotions in an appropriate manner. This could be done by the counsellor or a professional play therapist in group therapy sessions which could be short term weekend session or divided into 4 sessions spanned over the next one month.
Play therapy plays an important role in healing trauma victims, children use play powerfully to better emote their feelings rather than talk about them. It also provides an emotional distance to the children necessary to express threatening and negative emotions and thoughts. Thus through the use of play, we can reach out to both the younger children and the teenagers alike. Unfortunately this is a language that we as parents and teachers, have long forgotten and need to relearn it in order to understand what our child is feeling to help them.
This play way is used by a therapist trained in Play therapy to help children and parents understand and deal with their thoughts, feelings and behaviours. It aims to increase resilience and self esteem within each child enabling him / her to use this as a springboard to deal with difficulties in real world more confidently and to bridge the communication and emotional gap created by the trauma.