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Parenting Skills and Self-Care for Refugee Parents in a New CVT Nairobi Program

Published September 12, 2018

From left, Joanne Jepkemoi Kibet, physiotherapist/trainer; Rosina Mruttu, psychotherapist/trainer; and Elizabeth Mbatha Muli, psychotherapist/trainer, CVT Nairobi.

“As a parent, you give, give and give,” said Rosina Mruttu, psychotherapist/trainer. “You forget about yourself.” Parents who are torture survivors and refugees need to create time out for themselves so they don’t burn out.

Parents around the world cope with the stress of caring for children in the many different circumstances that face families every day. However, these stressors are compounded for refugee parents. Clinicians at CVT Nairobi found that many torture survivors who participated in the group counseling and physiotherapy sessions talked about their concerns and challenges with parenting. In a new country where – often suddenly – they have few resources and dramatically reduced living circumstances, they described problems with providing for children, with navigating unfamiliar cultural expectations, and with guiding and disciplining their children.

To help refugee parents cope, CVT Nairobi introduced Parenting sessions designed to help parents cope with stress and emotions and work on ways of dealing with their children that bring family members closer together.

There are six sessions in total, with an overall goal of helping clients learn new parenting skills during their transition. The sessions combine psychotherapy and physiotherapy elements to help parents learn grounding techniques, coping skills and techniques to identify and manage their emotions. Elizabeth Mbatha Muli, psychotherapist/trainer, said the team works to establish from the start that CVT is a safe place for clients to talk about their concerns, saying “With each new group, we set an enabling environment for discussion, where clients can share opinions. At first, we want to see where these parents are, see what their needs are – we want to see if our objectives will be theirs.”

Joanne Jepkemoi Kibet, physiotherapist/trainer, said clients gain key insights through the sessions about the wider effects of trauma, saying “It’s good for the parents to understand that their children suffer from trauma too, so they know how to give support. With this knowledge, they have a better understanding of the reasons behind a child’s behavior, for example, when a child is of sufficient age but has been bed wetting, crying or having difficulty concentrating and performing in school. They understand that this child has been affected by trauma.”

The sessions include both mothers and fathers, and the discussions can be eye-opening for everyone. “These discussions can get heated,” Elizabeth said. “As an example, there can be disagreement about communication with children. There are cultural implications from being from another country, another culture, and trying to fit in here in Nairobi. The women say, ‘You men – you are disengaged,’ while the men say the women are spoiling the children. We work with them on looking at how they understand their roles.”

Culture also plays an important role. “Some parenting concepts are new to the African continent, so we contextualize it,” Elizabeth said. “For example, ‘Time out’ is unknown as a concept. The idea that parents are befriending their child – they don’t see how that can work. So we work to remain sensitive to culture. Parenting in Kenya is different from clients’ home countries; refugees don’t understand it, and they perceive parenting here simply as Kenyans bribing their children, giving them a lot of gifts. They talk about the standard of parenting they see here and then they feel inadequate as parents, as refugees.”

Joanne said, “Back home, many clients had everything – they had nice homes, they had drivers. Now they are reduced to nothing. And the children can’t understand why they don’t have nice things, why they only have one meal a day.”

As parents in the sessions begin to understand each other better, understand trauma and learn new skills, they have improved relationships with their children. Rosina said, “After role-plays in session and practice at home, their relationships with their children improve. They tell us their children are freer with them. Before, the children were fearful that the parents would shout at them or even beat them. They come to the realization that there are different ways of parenting which encourage cooperation.”

The staff appreciate that by helping parents, CVT is helping the children indirectly, in very important ways. Clients also hold family meetings, a skill they learn during the sessions, and as Rosina said, “With the family meetings, children feel appreciated and valued as they have something to contribute.”

The program is having very good effects and positive impact on families. Joanne said “The skills we’re bringing to the community help people be less violent, use better ways to discipline children. The program is meant to empower clients to find new ways to do things, and it’s working.”

“Most participants wish the program was longer,” Joanne said.

CVT’s work in Nairobi is made possible by a grant from the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration; the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture; and the S.L. Gimbel Advised Fund at The Community Foundation – Inland Southern California.

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