Ages and Stages

June 15, 2008

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Maya Alexandri for Mercy Corps  </span>
    A young volunteer asks questions at a recent Comfort for Kids training. Photo: Maya Alexandri for Mercy Corps

Today, Mercy Corps conducted a Comfort for Kids training at Sichuan Southwest Minorities University. This training was organized by the Young Communist League, a government bureau for Chinese youth aged 25 and under, but the attendees at the training were mostly older volunteers with psychological backgrounds.

Griffen Samples, Mercy Corps Senior Technical Advisor, led the group through basic trauma training and provided pointers on the use of the Comfort for Kids workbook supplement, "My Earthquake Experience: 5/12 Wenchuan Earthquake."

One part of the trauma training is called "Ages and Stages," during which Griffen focused the group's attention on the similarities and differences that adults and children exhibit in their normal reactions to traumatic events. First, Griffen asked the group to describe instances of trauma they'd witnessed among adults.

A female participant stood and described the experience of a someone she characterized as a "very brave woman." This woman was a new mother. During the earthquake, she'd fled down seventeen flights of stairs, clutching her newborn baby, to escape the danger. Reaching the street, this brave woman had asked the participant who was relating the story, "Where should I go now?"

The participant replied, "Come stay at my apartment building."

Several days later, in the middle of the night, an aftershock shook the participant's building. She heard a crash at her door. Opening it, she found the very brave woman, curled in the fetal position at base of her door jamb.

"What are you doing?" asked the participant.

"How can I live like this?" replied the woman.

"The earthquake," concluded the participant, "transformed this brave woman into a fragile woman."

Explaining that this brave woman's extreme fear during an aftershock was a normal response to trauma, Griffen then asked the group to describe the reactions of children aged 0-3 years old. Another participant rose to relate the changes she'd observed in her own daughter, an 18-month-old.

During the earthquake, the little girl's grandmother had taken her to the basement. The girl became extremely excited, thinking the earthquake was a game. But after the earthquake, the girl continued to behave in a hyperactive manner and had begun biting and scratching other children and strangers.

Griffen emphasized that changes in the child's behavior were indicative of trauma. Biting and scratching, as well as the child's fear of strangers, were all normal responses to trauma, regularly seen in children who have weathered a traumatic event. Pre-verbal children, Griffen clarified, absorb information about the earthquake and the fear it generates in the adults around them — but they aren't yet capable of responding with language, so their behavior bears the expressive freight of their reactions.

Similarly, children commonly behave as if the traumatic event is a game because they may not understand the significance of the event as it's happening. Moreover, playing "earthquake" after the event — constructing buildings from Legos and destroying them in an "earthquake," or shouting "earthquake" and demanding that adults rush from the house — may help children process the experience.

The examples kept coming. One participant described a 10 year-old girl who'd endured the earthquake with equanimity, but subsequently became fearful after watching four days of televised quake coverage. Now she calls her parents when she arrives home from school, demanding to know where they are, and she wants to sleep with them through the night.

Another participant described a 12 year-old boy who, before the earthquake, had enjoyed skateboarding, but after the quake had switched to watching soap operas.

Griffen replied that all these behaviors were recognizable, normal responses to trauma. Children often regress to earlier stages of development after a traumatic event. Independent children may become clingy, needing to know their parents' whereabouts and keep them close.

Similarly, changes in behavior, including a newfound attraction to the story-telling of soap operas, are normal. Escapist melodrama, like soap operas, can serve a soothing role in the wake of a traumatic event.

One 4 year-old boy, who'd been hit with a brick during the earthquake and had been protected from further harm by his grandmother's body, had been hospitalized after his rescue. The boy felt "like a piece of wood," reported the participant, and doctors were worried that he'd been paralyzed. However, brain scans revealed that there was nothing physiologically wrong with the boy. His paralysis appeared to be psychological.

"What should I do to help this paralyzed boy?" asked the participant.

"Comfort for Kids is about recognizing and treating normal responses to trauma," Griffen explained. "These kinds of extreme reactions require the opinion of a psychiatrist or psychologist."

Then she provided him the contact information for a mental health professional who could help.