Noor Abdullah Al-Sagher is a senior psychosocial counselor at CVT Jordan.
An important part of working with survivors of torture and war atrocities is being able to empower the whole family. When one person survives a traumatic experience, it affects the rest of the family.
In my work, I see that families usually have a lot of strong internal resources they don’t recognize – our psychosocial support highlights their own strength.
Before I joined CVT, I earned my Master’s degree in family counseling and worked with refugees with a focus on family care and trauma rehabilitation. When I joined CVT, I began working with family members of torture survivors and joined the committee working on a clinical manual covering this work. It’s important to me that as we develop the family model, we document it so that it will be used consistently and effectively. We’ve been able to make advancements in this way, including having parents attend some sessions with their children. We call these caregiver sessions, and hold some jointly with children.
We provide psychoeducation for the parents as part of a skills-building session. In addition, we focus on parents’ skills with self-care, as many parents are unaware of the stress and anxiety that can be part of being in the caregiver role after enduring traumatic experiences. Part of this is to help them learn ways to monitor their feelings and thoughts, and also to normalize the symptoms, such as anger, bed wetting or excessive fear, that are coming up in their children. While this is common after trauma, many parents aren’t aware of the connection – they might not understand that acting out after trauma is normal for a child. When parents first arrive at CVT, many think their kids are crazy – or that they themselves are crazy. We help them see that the behavior is a result of trauma, not a sign of a bad child. This is also part of teaching confidence and ways to trust others.
We have the opportunity to work through this with parents as part of our follow-up on progress after sessions have ended. That’s when we hear about the long-term improvements in the children and also in the family. This process continues to support the therapy of the children. And the results for children are very strong – last year 95 percent of children had lower psychological symptoms after going through the sessions.
In my work, I deal with cases of bullying. In these situations, it’s very beneficial to work with both the parents and the children as part of therapy. We talk with them about bullying behaviors, which are inflicted by children or adults. We discuss ways to deal with people who bully children across the many places where it happens, for example, in school as well in domestic violence cases. There are also some cases that we classify as high risk because of the threat of harm or in cases where an individual is thinking of harming himself. We do individual sessions in addition to group sessions for these situations, and we sometimes refer people to protection services.
To help children cope with bullying, we use a number of exercises. One is in a game format, where we have one child wear a hat. The child tells the group a painful word that she heard. Each child describes the feelings they experience when they hear that word. We then talk about how they can respond in a way that will help reduce their fear, perhaps by speaking to an adult or parent. We also teach the children specific yoga postures that help them appear and feel confident. For example, we ask them to maintain the warrior yoga pose – they can have fun with this exercise as well as feeling strong.
For many parents, one of their big problems is that the children are afraid to speak up, even to their teachers. So we educate the parents about how important it is for children to be honest with their parents and get support. If children tell them that they are being bullied, the parents can talk to school officials directly. All schools need to follow the rules for protection of children, and the parents are not always aware of the support that is there.
We also focus on self-care for the parents. We know that their relationship with their child is affected by war and trauma, but we also consider the circumstances in which they are currently living. We think of a poor environment as a reference point so that when we teach self-care techniques, we adapt sessions to be practical. For example, we consider the client’s background and situation. All of these things affect their ability to do self-care.
Some of the techniques we teach are simple things like taking time away from a current situation that is giving them stress. We tell them to take a short break. We also teach breathing exercises that are calming. We work to teach exercises they can incorporate into their lives that don’t require financial resources, such as walking or playing games as a family – they can use these activities to spend time together in a healthy way. This is why we have parents join the children in the last part of the sessions – we want the parents to encourage children to use the techniques they learn in the session and to be able to do them together as a whole family.
It’s important to me that we are helping with empowerment for these families who have survived war. We are teaching skills to cope with a new life that was forced on them. When families are empowered, they solve their problems. In the last session, we see the changes in the relationships between children and parents. We can see the parents’ changes: they have started listening in a better way, and even the adults’ appearance changes – body posture, how they sit up, how they are taking care of themselves. It is very clear that that life and dignity are being restored.
And then when we conduct follow-up sessions with clients after three months and six months, we hear about their progress. Clients are reconnecting with a future. When I hear them tell about their progress, I see how good our work is. “My children felt like somebody cared about them,” a client said, adding, “My children mean the world to me and they got better because of CVT.”
Funding for CVT’s work in Jordan is funded by the United States Government and the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture.