Expert explains what escape and trauma mean for children and young adults

Miss Dr. Zendler, what kind of stories do people bring to you?

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Many feel the loss and guilt. You are afraid and unsure. There are also language difficulties and questions about school or medical care. So it’s a full full backpack.

Do children feel guilty?

Yeah. They feel it in relation to people who have had to stay, especially parents. Some children think: If I had asked my father to come with me more often, if I had cried more, if I had been kinder, then perhaps my father would have stayed with us.

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Are all the children and young people who come to you shocked?

No. Therefore, people who have experienced trauma are subjected to psychological trauma. But not all of them have PTSD that requires treatment. So you are shocked but not sick. Most refugees need someone to open their backpack with them, sort it and see: Which office is responsible for which load? That’s why families should be referred to where they can get support.

Dr. Areej Zendler is a child and adolescent psychiatrist, psychotherapist and trauma expert, and heads the outpatient refugee clinic at the University Hospital Hamburg-Eppendorf. Together with her team, Zindler supports children, youth, and families who have experienced displacement.

Many people want to help, but they also feel overwhelmed. What can volunteers do?

First you must ask yourself: What should I do? You are not a therapist. But they can look for institutions that can help. You don’t always have to be highly specialized.

Some children think: If I had asked my father to come with me more often, if I had cried more, if I had been kinder, then perhaps my father would have stayed with us.

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A place in kindergarten, at school – can it help greatly affected children?

In any case. Structure is very important for a number of reasons. For one thing, it provides security. We adults who haven’t been traumatized or don’t know it, but either. If we lack structure, we don’t do well.

But safety is only one side. Another is that not being together all the time helps families. Because the parents themselves are often exposed to psychological stress and try to unite themselves, just like children. So it is a good time for everyone when kids can play with other kids without worry and parents can be on their own.

What should teachers pay attention to when working with refugee children and youth?

A conversation with parents, preferably with an interpreter, is very important. When a German child goes to nursery school, the teachers also talk to the parents about the child, allergies, or other needs. Refugee children often lack this information.

Such a conversation builds confidence, and the child notes: The kindergarten teacher spoke to my mother and my mother agreed that I am here now. So I can be fine. In the course of this, you also have to see if there are any abnormalities.

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What are these abnormalities?

For example, constant fatigue. The only question is what is the reason behind this. Is the child traumatized and therefore constantly tired? Fortunately, this is only the case for about a quarter of children. With most children, you have to look closely: Are there rules? When do children go to bed? Do they possibly live in group housing? Can the mother child rest? These are questions to discuss with parents.

Quarter says. Is this an estimate or do you have numbers for it?

In general, studies show that approximately one-third to one-fourth of refugee children and youth have problems and need psychosocial support.

How do you recognize the trauma that needs to be accompanied by a professional?

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The shock manifests itself according to age. Under normal circumstances, a 2-year-old needs to be reasonably able to separate from his mother, be able to sleep and eat reasonably, and communicate with peers. If disturbances occur here or they lose the developmental skills they have already acquired, such as stopping to speak, it can be – but is not necessary – an indication that the child is traumatized.

But if we talk to everyone about the soul, then the Ukrainian child will not only become a subject and benefit from it, but the class as a society.

What about graphics and role-playing games that show death and war?

Adults tend to hide their inner world. Kids drop them out by rearranging them. So you play. But this doesn’t have to be a sign of shock either, but it does show that your inner world is busy and healed.

So is it okay if they reenact the fight and death scenes?

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It is important not to stop children, but not to encourage them either. The question is how the outside world will react. If the teacher reacts with fear to the game of war or imposes sanctions on it, it may upset the child. In cases where the teacher is not sure, she should definitely get professional help, that is, seek advice.

There is often uncertainty in establishments, for example about how much space a war can occupy, when children are put to work…

Depending on the age of the children, you can also make war games a theme. At the same time you have to see if this is something that happens all the time. Or does the child play the role of war, for example, because he is bored or does not integrate into the group? So it is about absorbing everything from an educational point of view. The key question is always: Is the child putting himself and/or others at risk with this behavior?

It’s not just about physical safety, is it?

No, it’s not just about acute danger, it’s also about development, for example. If a child is playing the whole time someone else is being killed, the child will not have the time and energy to explore, for age-appropriate development. His inner world is preoccupied with this war. Then it jeopardizes its development, and then you need to seek medical help.

Many come to us and say: You have become an idiot! I can’t do anything at school anymore.

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How do we recognize the need to work among young people?

Traumatized children and teens often have trouble sleeping, nightmares, depressive symptoms, and social withdrawal, and they report flashbacks and anxiety, and many say they have trouble concentrating. Many come to us and say: You have become an idiot! I can’t do anything at school anymore.

Is it useful then to send them to school immediately? In addition to the language barrier, there are also performance pressures.

But what would be the alternative? This wouldn’t be a school at all. And that’s bad. The best solution would be if there was no war and they stayed at home. Because that doesn’t work, all we can do is compromise. That’s why I’ve always said, despite all the flaws: Send the kids to school! However, this also presents huge challenges for day care centers and schools. They can only master it if they have support.

What do facilities need to be able to deliver justice for children?

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Money, human resources and education. You cannot continue with the regular staff if there are one or two children in the class who need more. Teachers also need more training. They need to know how to deal with mentally handicapped children. They are not supposed to be healers, but they do need the skills to handle difficult situations, such as when a young person suddenly breaks up. And they need the right contacts. Teachers keep calling us because they are afraid of doing something wrong.

Do we have a misconception about trauma and how to deal with it?

When it comes to trauma, many people think about re-traumatization and think about it a lot. But the normal rules of common sense also apply when dealing with refugees.

And what will it be?

At first I don’t ask right away, but wait to see if the person talks about what they experienced. When you do that, things get a little more difficult. Then I shouldn’t ban them, but I shouldn’t ask them too much either. It’s about the middle. As a teacher you can say, for example: These are bad things I’ve been through. I can imagine these things are bothering you. What do you think can help you? This last sentence is very important because trauma causes disability. That is why I do not tell young people what I think can help them, but I ask them what can help them. So that they can feel self-sufficient and make decisions on their own.

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How can this be implemented in schools?

Depending on the age of the students, you can make the spirit a topic in the class. Children know how to recognize injuries to the body, but how do we know when the soul is overburdened? Very few people know this. There are also other people who are overburdened – not just children who have had the experiences of war. Many children are still suffering from their misery. But if we talk to everyone about the soul, then the Ukrainian child will not only become a subject and benefit from it, but the class as a society.

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