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After A Disaster, Kids Don't Want To Talk About The Disaster

A refugee from Syria plays with a balloon at a camp in Turkey.
Fatih Aktas
Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
A refugee from Syria plays with a balloon at a camp in Turkey.

In the months after Hurricane Katrina slammed New Orleans in 2005, Tara Powell was one of the social workers on the scene, trying to help children cope with the disaster.

But as she and colleagues spent time in schools, it quickly became clear that the crisis interventions they were using were not working. One activity incorporated a book that kids were supposed to draw pictures in — something many of them had no interest in doing. Another was rooted in Native American spirituality, which didn't resonate with kids from inner city New Orleans.

Overall, the programs were focused on processing what had happened.

But, it turned out, the students didn't want to talk about the hurricane. They wanted to talk about what had happened next. Many had been forced to switch schools. They were getting into fights and struggling to adapt to new situations, crowded classrooms and the crush of schoolwork, all while surrounded by stressful situations in their communities.

"A lot of the kids were like, 'We don't want to draw. We're not interested in talking about our Katrina experience,' " says Powell, now at the University of Illinois. "They said, 'We want to talk about all the other issues we're facing. There is a lot of scary stuff going on in our community. We don't know how to keep ourselves safe.'

"We realized these kids don't need to reprocess the storm over and over again," she says. "They need to talk about other adversities related to the storm."

In response, Powell and colleagues developed a program called Journey of Hope that lets the children set the agenda. There are eight one-hour sessions with groups of 10 to 12 kids. The curriculum focuses on the fear, anger and anxiety that most kids experience after a disaster. They play games, hold discussions and do art activities.

Distributed by Save the Children, JoH has been used for children dealing with an earthquake in New Zealand, Hurricane Sandy in New York and violent conflicts in Ukraine. The team is now adapting the program for young Syrian refugees.

Powell spoke with Goats and Soda about the art of helping kids cope with disaster and some of the lessons she has learned along the way.

Why did you feel you needed to start a new program to help kids in disaster situations? What was missing in previous programs?

The gap we really found is that in many disaster and crisis situations, there is immediate crisis counseling for kids having really strong negative reactions. But there are not many programs for youth within the entire school to get into smaller groups and talk about their experiences — not in a therapeutic setting but more in a safe place.

What do kids get out of it?

It helps them identify what they can do in terms of coping with all of these different emotions. In studies, we have found that it has really helped them express anger and learn who they can talk to. Another outcome we've found a number of times is kids willing to share with each other and being kind to their peers. [After the program, noted a recent study, kids were better at verbalizing their feelings instead of acting out or fighting when faced with conflict.]

One thing that has come up over and over again is that it really helps them with bullying — I think because of the increase in connectedness with each other. [The curriculum emphasizes cooperation.] Teachers say they notice kids feel more comfortable in the classroom and interacting with their peers.

How have you seen the program affect individual kids?

I talked with a girl in Oklahoma last year. She was in sixth or seventh grade, and she had lost a family member in relation to the tornado in 2013. When I asked her what she took out of the program, she said, "Knowing I'm not alone and knowing I have a place I can talk about what I'm going through." That was one of the big takeaways. A lot of kids have said that about knowing they're not alone.

What has surprised you?

One of the things that has really surprised us as we were creating the program is that kids weren't really interested in talking about the disaster. They just needed things to go back to normal. And they wanted to feel like they were in a safe place. The bullying issue is also interesting. There's not a lot of research on it, but bullying behaviors really go way up after disasters. It makes sense, because kids are really stressed in chaotic environments.

How do you adapt the program for kids from different cultures?

What works in one place might not work in another place. We've done work with refugee kids from Bhutan and unaccompanied minors in Houston, and what we've learned is that some activities work and some don't. Self-esteem is a focus of one of the sessions. But in a lot of cultures, the concept of self-esteem doesn't really exist.

What we do is go through the program with people who are familiar with the culture. They go through the topics and discuss the activities so they will resonate with the kids we are working with.

What can parents do to help their kids cope with traumatic events?

If a parent is really stressed, the child will see that and have higher anxiety. That's just one of the things to recognize. Also, parents need to provide information to kids about what happened in the disaster, but not so much that they're terrified. Say there's a school shooting. Tell kids that, yes, this happened, but tell them what kinds of measures are in place to keep them safe. You also want to limit media. A lot of kids get secondary traumatic stress all over again. Listen to them, and don't minimize what's going on in school. Kids are so smart and so resilient and so creative. Most kids will overcome a traumatic event, given they have strong support networks and are in a safe environment.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Emily Sohn