Working in Early Childhood Settings with Children Who Have Experienced Refugee or War-Related Trauma

By Sims, Margaret; Hayden, Jackie et al. | Australian Journal of Early Childhood, December 2000 | Go to article overview

Working in Early Childhood Settings with Children Who Have Experienced Refugee or War-Related Trauma


Sims, Margaret, Hayden, Jackie, Palmer, Glen, Hutchins, Teresa, Australian Journal of Early Childhood


In recent decades, war has affected many civilians. More than 24 million people worldwide were displaced from their homes because of wars in 1996 (Machel, 1996). Half of all displaced people are children, who are particularly vulnerable to increased risk factors associated with displacement. Risk factors include physical danger (shelling, sniping, land mines), limited access to food and water, separation from parents, high levels of violence, substance abuse, illnesses, rape, prostitution, sexual molestation and mutilation, trafficking, and conscription. Such risk factors continue to exist in refugee camps. The arrival of peacekeeping troops does not lessen all the risk factors. Increased rates of child prostitution, and subsequent HIV infection, are often the result of living in areas occupied by peacekeeping troops (Machel, 1996).

Children who have experienced these traumas learn to adjust in order to survive. The extreme nature of their experiences results in adjustments that are developmentally dangerous (Marans & Adelman, 1997). Children learn to think of the world as a dangerous place where no-one can be trusted, especially not adults. They learn to act aggressively before they themselves are hurt. They learn to be hyper-vigilant, always on the lookout for danger and never relaxing. They often re-enact their trauma, playing out scenes of extreme violence and even involving other children in their play. Conversely, children may react to trauma by repressing all effect. They become unresponsive and close down emotional senses.

These behaviours are seen as maladaptive and inappropriate in Australian early childhood settings. Children displaying them often become labelled as aggressive or withdrawn/shy by both staff and other children. This results in their social isolation from the peer group. Bloom (1995) argues that usual adult responses to the ranges of maladaptive behaviours displayed by traumatised children result in reinforcement of the trauma. If we react in a way which conveys to the children that they are `different' (bad) we are, in effect, telling them they are at fault for their behavioural problems. If we react towards them as if they are 'sick' we are also implicitly identifying a deficit in the child. Either way, we are reinforcing their powerlessness and the hopelessness of change.

Bloom (1995) suggests that we need to think of the children as injured, through no fault of their own. We need to understand that repetitive re-enactment of their trauma is triggered by outside stimuli and is not something children are able to easily control. Their coping behaviours are triggered by stress and anxiety and are also automatic responses to danger. These children are used to rejection, hostility, abuse, harsh discipline, unrealistic expectations, and pain. We have to persuade children that their usual behaviour for coping with these feelings can be changed. We have to persuade children it is safe for them to change their coping behaviours.

It is crucial to note that the impact of trauma is not limited to those who experienced it directly. Children born in Australia to families from a traumatised background experience a form of secondary trauma which impacts on their longterm developmental outcomes in similar ways (Gallagher, Leavitt & Kimmel, 1995). Families adopt parenting styles and survival strategies in order to accommodate their traumatic experiences. Siblings share play experiences and interactions within the family. Thus the trauma is passed on to Australian-born children.

Children who do not receive appropriate support in their early years have a much higher risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder (Garbarino, Dubrow, Kostelny & Pardo, 1992; Karcher, 1994). Children can develop extremely aggressive behaviours, somatic illnesses, depression and/or learning difficulties (Demaree, 1994; Lawson, 1995). Long-term mental health problems are likely to occur, even in those children whose early behaviours appear relatively unaffected (Garbarino et al. …

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