Interview: Moving From Research to Design

Dr. Ani Kalayjian, co-editor of “Mass Trauma and Emotional Healing Around the World,” generously donated some time for a phone interview on November 16, 2010. The following notes from that interview summarize and confirm many of the themes in my research thus far.

Please walk me through what happens on a therapeutic level to a child after a natural disaster.
The child is assessed for physical and emotional damage and observed for at least a month. That’s about how long it takes for life to return to normal in the best cases. Those that continue to exhibit symptoms are flagged for play or art therapy.

Is that a standard procedure for governments or NGOs? Does everyone get therapy?
Most don’t get therapy. They just go on their merry way until school starts. School can help a lot. It gives them structure and a social network. Sometimes we try to engage them in art projects. That lets us cover more ground than individual therapy and gives the kids something to do. There are NGOs that perform group play and art therapy.

What happens to children who lose their parents in the disaster?
UNICEF gets their profiles and they get put in supervised group homes. They stay in orphanages until someone comes to adopt them.

Getting back to therapy, what kinds of objects help a child emotionally recover from a disaster?
Objects from childhood, such as a security blanket, would help. The personal items that are taken away by a disaster and help form identity are the ones that the child wants most. Transitional objects can be therapeutic, as they connect a child to his past. These are often soft and cuddly items or figurines, really, anything that can bring back a positive memory. Objects that connect a child to the outer world by engaging them in play with symbols and stories give a child meaning. Objects such as stress balls can engage a child in anxiety-relieving rituals. Consider using materials that connect them to their fears. After the tsunami in Sri Lanka, we let children play with sand to slowly expose them to their stressors.

When you volunteer your time to help in relief efforts, what does your group bring?
We are not well-organized in this respect. There is no set list of recommended items. It really depends on what we get in terms of donations. Some things we have brought include crayons, watercolor pens, stress balls, clay, animal-shaped objects, and child-shaped objects. Stuffed animals and dolls are often pre-owned.

What do you do with the art supplies?
We try to encourage a dialogue. We ask the kids to draw their nightmares. We try to get to the root of their stressors. With the clay we ask them to model whatever they like. In Sri Lanka, they made animal forms that they felt would protect them.

Protect them from a natural disaster?
It makes more sense once you understand the Sri Lankan cultural context. Parents commonly tell children that a monster will come out of the sea to punish them if they misbehave. Then the tsunami came and children felt guilty because they were trained to believe that it was their fault. Many would draw sea monsters from which they needed protection. We try to dispel those misconceptions by making informative games. We show them how to hide, escape, find meeting areas, and other things that prepare them for the next tsunami.

Are the animal-shaped objects you mentioned more literal or figurative?
They are literal, stuffed animals and plastic toys. They don’t have to be. That’s just what people donate. I think it’d be better if they were more amorphous, perhaps clay or sand-like so that children get a tactile response. They can shape it into something that they can identify with.

Can children help others or perform community service as a form of therapy?
Some children do this naturally. Play therapy can encourage altruism where children help each other overcome tantrums.

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