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Haiti Earthquake Appeal: How orphaned children feel

Boy thinking
Boy thinking

The long experience of SOS Children dealing with orphans for sixty years gives clues on how children will be feeling in the Haiti Earthquake aftermath

Trauma and coping with trauma

What does a child feel in a situation like this?

Long experience in Emergency Relief has taught us that children in the devastated areas in Haiti will have been affected in many ways by this traumatic event. They have been directly confronted with destruction and death; many children willl have suffered serious physical injuries but many equally serious emotional injuries. If not dealt with the damage can be debilitating for the child's whole short or long life. Many have lost family members, one or both parents or siblings, many more have lost their homes. A wide range of responses and emotions are brought forth by such experiences: reactions directly following the event start with shock. Because the traumatic experience is so dramatic, extreme, sudden, and possibly even life-threatening, it is imprinted on the child's memory. This deeply embedded event is a disturbance that the child carries with him or her at all times, memories of the event can control the child's thoughts and feelings. Long-term consequences include fear, vulnerability, depression, anger and sleep disorders, as well as the repeated and uncontrollable reliving of the event itself.

A child who has suffered from this extreme traumatic experience is particularly susceptible to the development of pathological symptoms. His or her life chances can be wrecked if the psychological trauma is not treated. Thus professional trauma care should be initiated as soon as possible; the questions are what and how?

Clinical experience and modern research show what to do in such situations

First of all, the children's direct physical and medical survival is to be ensured by first aid measures; if a child has been separated from its parent(s) it is essential to immediately determine all possibilities of reunion with the family (parents, grandparents and/or other relatives). Furthermore, the child needs extensive and sustainable psychological guidance. Dealing almost simultaneously with all of these support levels is one of SOS Children's main principles in such situations.

Beyond that, what else does SOS Children provide?

Experts agree that acutely traumatized children can be helped when one confronts them with the situations that induce their emotional reactions and encourage them to express their thoughts and feelings about the traumatic experience etched on their memory. This is different from the case with longer term suffering. It is important to integrate the experiences and the feelings attached to them into their everyday lives in a well-guided manner in order for them to be able to live constructive and fulfilling future lives. Several methods that may help children convey what they have experienced can also be applied by non-experts, teachers and other adults who work and deal with children. These include verbalization / active listening, scenic drawing, games and playing, writing and exercising religion. Additionally, there are more specific methods that can only be utilized by experts. SOS Children has a lot of expertise in that field of work and provide individually adapted services for affected children. Furthermore we have to assume responsibility for approaching and bonding with the child and for giving the child the chance to confront and deal with these extreme experiences. It is equally important, however, to provide the child with breaks, so that he or she does not speak continuously about the event, to give the child time to "forget" and moments to simply be a child in "normal" circumstances. That means it is important to provide a little bit of "normality" in a protected and safe environment. It is important that people who live with, care for or provide therapy to traumatized children understand the causes and impacts of childhood traumas, as well as that they continue to develop their skills and competences in supporting and treating traumatized children. 

Our trauma team is starting to train volunteers to help as soon as possible with the cast number of frightened children.