Grief Matters: Supporting Resilience and Wellbeing of Children in Crisis Contexts

Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS)

With the growing number of natural disasters and conflicts around the world, it is no surprise that the amount of children displaced by climate emergencies or conflict has grown exponentially and will continue to rise. Whether forced to flee because of a hurricane, earthquake, or active or protracted conflict, the physical act of leaving your home, your safe place, and oftentimes your family, is a compounded traumatic event that will inevitably induce a grieving process. 

While visiting a refugee camp in 2017, I met a 3 year old girl named Fatima (not her real name) whose family had been forced to flee from Mosul, Iraq. At the age of 2, she traveled inside a barrel with her then pregnant mother, and her father for several days from Iraq to Turkey. In Turkey, her family paid smugglers to get them on a boat to Greece. Her father did not survive the journey, and her mother was now forced to fend for Fatima and her baby sister in a foreign country. The language and customs were unfamiliar to them, and with no home or shelter to speak of, the situation was dire. This loss can be an overwhelming and an emotionally painful experience which may affect each child differently. However, the emotional and physiological impact of displacement is often ignored in educational responses for children.

Grief is not only something you experience with the demise of a loved one, but it can be felt with the loss of a place, a sense of identity, or a thing. The loss can be a traumatic event in itself that produces feelings of grief, whether conscious or subconscious. Thus, Fatima was facing a quadruple trauma: leaving her home suddenly was the first, the horrific and frightening journey was the second, the loss of her father was the third, and the unsafe feeling mixed with looming uncertainty about their future was the fourth. 

Within their trajectory, Fatima had witnessed horrors unimaginable to most, and experienced fear and uncertainty in a way that no child should ever have to endure. Without psychosocial support and interventions, traumatic events such as these experienced at a young age can build up as prolonged unresolved grief, which would undoubtedly lead to damaging impacts on mental and physical health and development. Sadly, Fatima’s story is not uncommon, and there are roughly 100 million people that have been forced to flee their homes. Nevertheless, psychosocial support is typically the afterthought in emergencies as basic needs and resettlement take precedence.

Importance of Coping Mechanisms

Commonly, adults find grief difficult to overcome and turn to various coping strategies. If adults struggle with this emotional turmoil, what about children, especially young children? Children in their most formative early years may not fully understand that the death of a loved one, for example, is a definite act that cannot be overturned. Without fully grasping the concept, it makes processing the emotion even more challenging. Take for example parents that sent their children on a journey to safety, but had to stay behind. Will the children ever reunite with their parents? Is the bond of the caregiver and child broken? Can this state of limbo and uncertainty permeate the child’s development? 

Without the secure attachment, children do not develop affective regulation skills or the relational context for later affective, cognitive, and social development. In layman terms, without a parent or caregiver to hold and support the child after a traumatic event, children don’t develop adequate coping skills. Or, if the parent is available, but is undergoing their own trauma, they may not be able to provide the secure attachment the child needs. While each case is different, and children tend to be very resilient, the effects of toxic stress should not be discounted. The aftermath of trauma and unprocessed grief can later surface as health alignments, mental health issues, and learning barriers

Fostering Resilience: Using art and creativity to process grief

A child participating in art therapy activities of the Colors of Kindness in Greece (Amal Alliance & ARSIS Copyright 2022).
Figure 1: A child participating in art therapy activities of the Colors of Kindness in Greece (Amal Alliance & ARSIS Copyright 2022).

To mitigate these adverse consequences, Amal Alliance aims to strengthen children’s social and emotional skills to improve resilience and overall wellbeing. We focus on the social, emotional, cognitive, and physical aspects to ensure we are addressing holistic whole child development. Even though our programs don’t address grief directly, we help children learn how to identify feelings and emotions, and subsequently learn to manage them through mindfulness and breath work. Understanding your emotions is the pre-cursor towards self-regulation, and developing self-awareness allows children to identify what they are feeling in order to be able to express what they need. 

We foster creativity and expression through play, mindfulness, dance, art therapy, and kids yoga in both our Mini Rainbow of Education designed for children ages 3-6 and our more widespread spin-off, Colors of Kindness for children ages 6-12. These outlets allow for pent up grief and trauma to be released in the form of movement and art, which is necessary when children don’t yet have the words to articulate what they are feeling. Ultimately, our goal is to allow children to explore, understand, and manage their feelings in a safe manner. 

The emotional and physiological impact trauma, grief, and toxic stress can have on children affected by crisis’ development can be devastating. Yet, most educational responses often don’t meet these needs. For this reason, Amal Alliance is dedicated to addressing these gaps at both the onset of crisis and through protracted situations. By establishing a safe space, our programming can restore childrens’ sense of normalcy, reestablish a routine, and give life to newfound ways of expression. Ultimately, we are equipping children with the coping skills needed to overcome some of the most egregious hurdles and ensure children can embark on their healing journey. 

Author’s bio 

Headshot: AuthorDanielle De La Fuente has vast experience in peace building and diplomatic efforts stemming from her work at the US Department of Defense and multiple Embassies. Her passion for achieving sustainable development, led her to form the Amal Alliance. Amal is an international NGO that provides displaced and disenfranchised children worldwide with education and social development programs to help cope with the invisible scars of trauma, and the learning fundamentals needed to succeed. Bridging policy and practice, she sits on the Advisory Board of Boston University’s Global Development Policy Center, a G20Y Committee, the Steering Committee of Karanga, and forms part of numerous international coalitions and UN task teams for early childhood development, inclusive education, and social emotional learning. Her work has received many accolades and awards in the field of education in emergencies. Danielle obtained her BA in International Relations from Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Affairs and MLitt in Peace and Conflict Studies from the University of St Andrews in Scotland.