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Information for sponsors on trauma, its presentation and impact

What is trauma?

Many people who go through a traumatic event are likely to experience upsetting emotions, thoughts and memories. However, most people will feel better over time. When these unpleasant reactions don’t go away, and interfere with someone’s daily life, they might be experiencing poor mental health or a mental illness.

Traumatic events are shocking because it is difficult to make sense of them. They don’t fit with our sense of what the world should be like. Each person who experiences trauma and adversity will do so in a different way and be affected in different ways depending on their unique experiences.

What is the impact of experiencing traumatic events and situations?

The potential impacts of trauma on people are wide-ranging and can be emotional, psychological and physical. These are not things that are certain to happen, but people are at greater risk of these effects if they have been exposed to traumatic events. When speaking to people who have become displaced due to conflict, it is important to recognise that the movement is also likely to have been difficult and distressing in addition to the trauma of the conflict itself. They are likely to experience feelings of loss and grief for their:

  • friends and family members left behind or lost to the conflict
  • pets
  • communities
  • homes
  • work or schools
  • activities.

They may have experienced or witnessed stressful or traumatic events. In their home country and during their displacement, people or systems that they previously held trust in may not have been trustworthy or safe. Mental health challenges are very common among displaced people. It is important to recognise that mental health is a continuum, with mental health and mental illness at the two extreme ends. Depending on the internal and external faculties of a person at any time, he/she/they can lie at one point of the continuum and shift position as their situation improves or deteriorates. Without timely and appropriate support, mental health can deteriorate.

Common mental health problems in those that have experienced or fled from conflict include:

  • Sleep disruption/poor quality sleep
  • post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • depression
  • anxiety disorders.

There are high rates of grief, distress, and mental health problems in people under the age of 18, especially in the context of experiencing the many traumatic events of conflict. It is also important to be aware that people’s responses to trauma are likely to look and feel different. In some circumstances, when a person is ‘triggered’ (they are reminded of the trauma and feel fearful), they may respond in a variety of ways. It is important to understand that ‘behaviour is communication’. You can read about this further in these resources and resources on this webpage:

What approaches are there to caring for children and families after trauma?

Being a member of a collaborative network of care and support can lessen the longer-term impacts of trauma on people who have been displaced. Approaches include:

  • receiving timely social support
  • having a safe space to talk about and begin to make sense of what happened
  • building/strengthening relationships to create trust and greater networks of support.

It is clear that integrating children and their families into caring relationships and social arrangements and ensuring that they are offered social support from families and peers, have strong, helpful effects. Helping children and families should be based on the principles of psychological first aid, which include:

  • Good communication – Being calm and understanding, not pressuring people into speaking, and remaining aware of your words and body language.
  • Preparing to speak to people by learning about their situation and experiences, the services available to support them and how they can access them.
  • Looking, listening, and linking – Look to see if the person and/ or their family have any urgent unmet needs, might be experiencing further harm, or is having serious distress. Find out what their needs and concerns are and link them with health, housing, financial and legal services.
  • Creating trusting relationships – Trustworthiness is important – this means keeping promises and not promising things that you cannot deliver or offering false reassurance.

It is important to help your guests to feel welcome from the start, which can promote a greater sense of safety. This can include providing them with a space where they can feel welcome and safe, respecting cultural norms and being sensitive to possible trauma histories. It is important to remember that the adults in children’s families may also be struggling with their experiences, their health may be affected, and they may have difficulty in reassuring their children. Often, children worry about parents and other family members.

It may be that families aren’t staying with you for a long time, but ‘every interaction is an intervention’ (Dr Karen Treisman), meaning every time we communicate, we have a chance to create a positive experience, a positive connection, and a positive step. This does not have to be ‘big’ things; it can be the smallest of gestures or the friendliest of smiles. These small moments can build a pattern that creates safety and trust. It is natural to want to offer physical reassurance (for example, hugs or a shoulder to cry on), but not all people want physical contact, and it is important to respect physical space.

(This information has been first produced and published from Barnado’s ‘Advice for Host Families’ leaflet )

Worrying about War and Conflict (PDF, 10.9MB). A resource bank to support children and young people’s emotional wellbeing by Phoenix Education Consultancy.

Help for teachers and families to talk to pupils about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and how to help them avoid misinformation. Some useful advice and resources for schools and teachers – but they may also be useful for families and young people themselves.

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