Conceptual framework

The core of this project is the assumption that children are in essence growing organisms, and that this growing process is an intrinsic power for the regeneration of what they have lost in an environment of violence. This same environment, though, usually prevents the child from starting this process.
Activities, designed to support the child in his or her regeneration, are basically social instruments that neutralise these negative outside forces. The design of these activities will always be a process, rather than a product, a progressive development of the social structure (for instance a game) in response to the actions of the children involved.

Activities that are developed for traumatised children and other children in especially difficult circumstances will also attract healthy children and this is very positive: children can support each other. Yet, children that cope with severe mental problems may be handicapped in their social functioning,  and therefore these activities will have to be designed with a clear understanding of the situation they are in. This understanding leads consequently to a set of simple rules for the development of activities that may, however, not be directly evident.

Helping the child

When we see a group of children on one side of a street with heavy traffic, we can do several things:

All these actions are usually described by the word 'helping', yet they are essentially different actions. This project concentrates on the third kind of 'helping', or 'facilitating'  (developing the social pendant of traffic lights), and therefore it has to work in close connection with structures that offer the fourth type of help, in non-metaphoric terms: a professional mental health care system.
Helping always implies an unequal relationship, and must therefore by definition be a temporary relationship, a well defined period in which a well described objective is to be reached, after which the 'helping' action is formally terminated and the relationship becomes balanced.

Individual Mental Trauma

The exact nature of trauma is still not very well known. In this project, traumata are seen as mental injuries, caused by extremely shocking experiences that overwhelm the individual rendering it helpless, and causing a loss of ego-functions and regression .  Traumata can be considered in the same way as injuries in the physical body .  The original shocking experience not only causes trauma, it also an origin of stress. Stress is, in essence, a defensive reaction that permits the mind and the body to function on a very high level of alertness for a while, usually very effective in a shocking situation. A lot of energy is produced, normal emotional reactions are shut off. Stress permits to cope with the situation in a crisis, but it also wears out the body and the mind.

The result of trauma, or maybe the trauma itself, can be seen as an overload  of the human ability to handle emotion. As a consequence, the traumatised person can no longer handle the memory of the events until this overload has been corrected. Whenever the traumatised person relaxes, however, the memory comes back (i.e. in the form of flashbacks), and ignites the original defence reaction: stress. A traumatised person therefore never relaxes, lives in a constant state of anxiety and fear, or fights permanently against the memories that wear him or her out.
The correction process therefore has to deal with the memory of the original, traumatising experience, and with relaxation . Only when the memory is allowed to come into consciuosnesst and be handled in full detail, can the traumatised person relax, but it is only when the person can relax, that the memory can be approached. This vicious circle can only be broken by inducing relaxation from the outside.

The original experience was, as we assume, too shocking for the person to handle. Logically, the process in which the memory may be approached can therefore have two directions: the first is to show that the original experience was 'in reality' not that terrible, the second is to permit the person to develop until he or she can handle the memory. Certainly in the case of war related trauma, the first direction is not really an option: usually the traumata were really terrible, and any attempt to belittle them would be offending. One of the measurable effects of trauma is regression. This indicates that the person may, in effect, be seen as 'shrunk' by the trauma. The support of a growing process is therefore the essence of all activities in this framework.

Loss of individuality, Identity.

Children are developing not only their general human characteristics, not only the characteristics of their social surrounding, and not only their biological and genetically preconceived characteristics,  but also their own uniqueness, their individuality. This individuality is concretised in many details that form the daily life of a child: special preferred toys, secret places where to go or to hide in,  special relations with special people. In the case of war, and certainly in the case of being driven away from home, this whole sensitive network may be crushed, leaving the child completely lost from all the elements that proved who he or she was. The support of a growing process, as mentioned above, is therefore also the support of the (re)construction of identity, identity defined here as the assembly of all independent choices that a person has made.

Collective Mental Trauma

Even more difficult to understand than individual trauma is the effect of war on the collective. Different from natural catastrophes, violence in war is not so much directed against the people that die as a result of it, but is, in effect, more directed to the ones that outlive the ordeal. Violence in war has the explicit intention of traumatising the survivors, of inducing fear (surrender, subjection).
The social group in war can therefore be seen as much traumatised as the individual, and the collective trauma affects the individuals in this collective as much as individual experiences do. Yet, here the individual memory is not the source of resulting stress and other symptoms. Here we deal with the collective memory: the stories, the myths, the legends that were created in the war .
In the aftermath of war, a whole culture can be threatened in its existence, and this loss, cultural bereavement, affects the individuals, comparable to the loss of their own identity, with culturally specific symptomatic results .

Loss and Mourning

Many people are confronted with the loss of relatives during war. The resulting process of enduring loss, mourning, should not be mistaken for trauma, although sometimes there is resemblance. This is important, because many times, the healing of trauma will organically result in the start of a 'healthy' mourning process. The individual mourning process needs social support, and is therefore in essence a social process. In the way that mourning is traditionally handled in society, one can find very important elements that are valuable for many other forms of support.
Mourning can also be a collective process, and in the case of collective trauma it is probably a necessary one. This mourning can also surpass generations, and therefore even be necessary for those that have to live with the pain that their parents experience .

Guilt and Shame

Guilt and shame are subjective frames of interpretation of the causal chain of events.
They do not only introduce a moral component into the situation, but they also have a very practical effect on the alternatives for social action that are open to the individual. This is true at the individual as well as at the collective level. At the individual level there is not only direct guilt as a consequence of action, but there is, maybe even more importantly, the survivor's guilt: the shocking consciousness of survival through an ordeal in which other highly loved ones have lost their lifes. There are also collective guilt and shame, experienced by every member in a community, since war is not an individual conflict. As a consequence of war, therefore, guilt and shame are connected to roles that were performed in a war. For children, however, there is a difference: not their own, but the roles of the parents, the family, the tribe, the nation may define their position as 'guilty' or 'just' in the eyes of the world .  We can see that in the aftermath of war, guilt and shame get tangled with the collective mourning process. In this process the subjective experience is imposed on the new generation. We can see documented instances of this with the Jews , the Germans and the Japanese , but this is valid as well for the Dutch and the American youth of that period, raised in the beliefs of being 'the just', or 'the good' .


Healing is seen as a process of (re)activation and (re)integration of all the elements that are essential to the personality. Healing is, in essence, done by the personality itself. It is an internal life-force, that can, however, be blocked by circumstances.  This blockade can be external as well as internal.
Others can help by removing these blocks and this action is also generally named 'healing'.
The removal of external blocks is in essence a task for the community, since these are by definition a part of this community. This task requires alertness, compassion and careful analysis that can be expected from healthy members of the community .
The removal of external blocks and relaxation should ideally result in a spontaneous healing process within de individuals that are thus supported.
When this does not happen, internal blocks may be addressed, but this requires more training and considerable experience with the dynamics of the human psyche. Here too, fundamental knowledge of the culture in which one 'heals' is essential .
A grassroots organisation aiming to (re)structure the social environment must therefore operate in close co-operation with trained psycho-social workers , who, on the other hand, will gain immensely in effectiveness by the existence of such a grassroots-organisation due to the fact that its programmes can address large numbers of people and identify the people in need of more experienced help in an organic process that also prevents stigmatising them.

Games and Activities

The distinction between games and other activities is, that games are activities that are in some way 'safe' from the rules of the community. Within a game there can be experimenting with actions and emotions that are impossible in real society. To be significant and effective, these actions use symbolic tools (as: dice for fate) or become symbolic themselves (there are many ways of 'dying' in games).
All non-game activities take place in reality, and entail all the dangers of that reality as a consequence. On the other hand they allow real responsibility, and acknowledgement from the society in which they are organised.

Games and activities can, if devised properly, present frameworks in which series of choices are offered to the individual in a collective process. These choices facilitate the expression, the (re)development of the individual identity, and they also permit the collective to recognise and to accept this identity.
There are many aspects of games and activities that can be influenced and developed as a function of their results . To support healing, games and activities will have some basics in common. There are:
 Individual entry for children on a voluntary basis.
Activities will have to be attractive for children because they offer something that is of value to them at that specific moment. What that is, is not predictable. For other children the same activity may be wrong: either too emotional, or not interesting enough. The choice by a child whether or not to participate in a certain activity is in itself a reinforcing action.
Possibility for participation by traumatised and non-traumatised children.
The support of healthy peers is important in overcoming trauma. Yet, traumatised children are at a disadvantage in normal social intercourse, because they are handicapped in many ways. Activities have to be devised in such a way that children with varying social capacities can mingle without stigmatising the weaker. This means that there must be diversification in forms of participation.
Room for the expression of emotions, individual as well as collective.
Games and activities that leave no space for the expression of emotions are of no use, since an essential element of the healing process is that emotions, induced by the traumatising experience, are unleashed. Specially designed activities have to allow this by offering time, or  by providing forms for these emotions (like singing, dancing, etc.).
The absence of competition.
Competition is not really, as one may think, about winning. Competition is all about losing, and loosing is the one thing that victims of war do not have to learn any more.

These rules exclude some important social fields of activities from the projects, like all competitive sport, as well as the obligatory, formal education system, in which the child has to meet externally defined objectives. This is not a problem, however, since these excluded activities are usually self-organising or provided by other quite capable institutions . There is a clear need for co-operation with these institutions. Many activities, for instance, are possible and necessary for teachers in schools, being important people in the child's surrounding. Teacher-awareness of the needs of children in trouble is of great importance .
All activities should have a goal within the project, and not become regular social services, like for instance kindergarten, within the project. If they are continued as such, they will have to do so as an independent project- but this may be one of the goals of some activity.

The Essence of Results: Process.

We make our plans of action to achieve certain 'results'. We think that we create 'results' by our actions, and that these 'results' are the proof of our success.
In reality however, the 'results' that we get are hardly ever the results we set out to reach. This does not, however, discourage us: we simply change history. We select the results we like, pretend that these were the results we always wanted, and then declare 'success'.

We would, in fact be much more realistic, if we were to see all 'results' as a by-product of what we really create. What then is it, that we really create? If we look at 'results' this way, it becomes possible to answer the question: we create process: a chain of actions, results that are being fed back to us, and that provoke new actions. In this process, there really are no fixed points, because even the goals of our actions are changing during the process. Yet, in this process there is structure, and it is this structure that we create.
Of course: goals and results are important elements for process, like fruits are for evolution. (We don't create fruit, but we did influence a genetic selection process that changed not only fruit, but also our taste for it.)

Likewise it is with the healing of children from their trauma. As we have seen before, it is not this project that will create 'healing', nor is that done by the young adults that will work in the project. If anybody, the children themselves 'produce' their own healing. The process we create (the project) is there to create the right circumstances in which this can occur.

The importance of results is not denied here: what is stressed is that the process is even more important. Why is it important that we are aware of this?
It is important, simply, because we do not know what a 'healed child' exactly is . Not even in Western society, and certainly not in societies that have seen generations of warfare.
It is important, because we must learn to see unexpected (or unwanted) results not as the consequence of mistakes, but as important indicators in our work, and be able to search for them, rather than to have to mask them.
It is important because we must learn to see that our standards for 'positive' and 'negative' with regard to 'results' are extremely time- and place- correlated and therefore are subject to process themselves.
Positive and negative results then become beacons, fixed points that can help us to give direction to the development we create. Thus, we can see process as the combination of 'development' (or movement) and 'direction'.

This project is therefore not primarily 'goal' oriented, nor is it 'result' oriented. Of course there is, on the onset, a goal. Of course 'results' have an important function. But essential is, that a viable process is ignited within a society that fights the consequences of war, that this process is not strange to its culture and that it includes the inherent healing forces of that culture.

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