By Melinda Phillips
Refugees and those seeking asylum come to Australia from many countries around the world, and children and young people are a central part of this picture. In 2010, there were about 15.4 million refugees throughout the world, and 47% of these were children and young people under the age of 18. The number of people joining this group shifts from year to year, but around 845,000 people claimed asylum or refugee status globally in 2010. Australia receives a small proportion of these applications globally – in 2010–2011, a total of 13,799 people were granted visas in Australia under the Humanitarian Program, including 8,971 off-shore and 4,828 on-shore applicants (AHRC, 2012).
Impacts on Children, Young People and Their Families
Children and young people with refugee backgrounds experience the impacts of change and loss both as themselves and also as members of their family. One way to understand their responses is through the lens of grief, and related grief reactions. Children, young people and family reactions are further compounded by each family’s experience of resettlement within their communities, including schools and other services, and within the refugee community (Aroche & Coello, 1994).
When discussing the impacts of trauma, exile and resettlement on children and young people, including the role that grief may play, it is first important to acknowledge the resilience of children and young people in times of turbulence, including war and exile (Sagi-Schwartz, 2012). Children and young people exhibit agency as well as vulnerability (Graham & Fitzgerald, 2011).
Many children and young people do, however, experience a range of physical, mental and emotional reactions as they cope with the events they have experienced and the challenges they and their families have faced. These responses may include “sleep disturbances, regression and clinginess to caregivers, loss of concentration and learning difficulties, fearfulness and anxiety and aggressive behaviour” (Sagi-Schwartz, 2008 p. 323), with young people experiencing many of these responses too, and possibly also withdrawing and/or engaging in risky behaviour. Many children will continue to experience feelings of sadness, fear and anxiety, as well as anger and guilt, in response to their previous experiences, even though they have reached the relative safety of Australia (Foundation House, 2011).
How caregivers are coping is of primary importance to the children and young people in their care. If parents or other caregivers can competently care for their children, these children suffer far fewer negative effects than those without support (Sagi-Schwartz, 2008). However, the impact of trauma and other challenges on parents and caregivers may mean they aren’t able to consistently offer support to the children in their care, and in some cases may leave children and young people acting in a caring role for their parents (Brough et al., 2001). Some children and young people may have been separated from their family members, or have been sent on ahead of their parents and siblings with extended family or even by themselves.
Another issue at the family level is how quickly children and young people, and their parents/caregivers, adapt to the new culture as part of resettlement. Different rates of acculturation within the family can lead to significant stress (Lustig et al., 2004) and can also lead to children and young people taking on new roles within the family, which can be difficult for parents and caregivers who have more traditional perceptions of family roles. Other parenting challenges include new parenting norms, loss of external roles through employment, and possibly new traumatic situations emerging in the home because of the strain of dealing with their complex situation. As a result, children can be managing both past and current trauma. That said, these same relationships can be viewed as sources of support, resources and strength to all members of the family (Hynie et al., 2012).
Refugee children and young people coming to Australian schools may have had disrupted schooling, or often no school experience at all (Brough et al., 2001). This lack of experience with formal education, coupled with potentially poor physical health leading to possible developmental issues, along with mental and emotional vulnerabilities due to the trauma experienced before their arrival in Australia, can make attending school a challenging and highly anxiety-provoking experience. This may then be further impacted by the learner-centred culture of Australian schools, which can be alienating and confusing for those students expecting a teacher-centred approach (Foundation House, 2011).
Supporting Refugee Children and Young People: the Seasons for Growth Program
Schools are very well placed to support refugee children, young people and their families. Schools are a place where students and their families learn about Australian culture, and they can also be proactive in support of newly arrived families – they are a place in the community where people can be made to feel welcome and can adapt to suit the needs of refugees (Brough et al., 2001).
For children and young people, schools have a unique role in “providing an environment that nurtures resilience and reduces vulnerability of students who have experienced trauma” (Foundation House, 2011, p. 49). Schools can help students work toward connecting with others by recognising and responding to children and young people’s prior experiences and their subsequent expectations about what education looks and feels like. They can also help by providing a range of opportunities to belong, contribute, be valued and build positive relationships with others. These opportunities contribute to all students’ sense of agency and wellbeing, and schools may do this through activities integrated into everyday classroom experiences or through specific programs.
Seasons for Growth is one such program. Seasons for Growth is built on the premise that change and loss are a normal and natural part of life; that children and young people need to have their experiences of change and loss heard, acknowledged and respected; and that their participation affirms their agency and can aid in building their resilience.
Children and young people from refugee backgrounds have successfully taken part in Seasons for Growth since it was first created in 1996. Companions using the program have felt the program was a very useful support for them within their schools; however, there was no specific training or resources for Companions to use when working with refugee children.
In response to this identified need, Good Grief established a pilot project to develop some support to better equip Companions to work with children and young people from refugee backgrounds. The training program that was developed, and is now available to Companions as a “reconnector”, covers three areas and reflects Seasons for Growth’s underpinning philosophy that children and young people benefit from grief and loss education and can learn and adapt positively to change. The first session focuses on the experiences of refugee children and young people and their families. The second session explores the skills Companions need to support the children and young people participating and the third provides an overview of how best to adapt Seasons for Growth program activities to meet the needs of this group of children and young people. This final session focuses on catering for the diverse learning and emotional needs of students within an inclusive setting.
To deliberately misquote Worden, each child or young person’s experience from a refugee background is like all other children’s experience, like some other children’s experience and like no other child’s experience (2008, p. 8). They are children first and foremost, and they can display enormous resilience in coping with change and loss experiences both in their transition from their homeland, in exile, in managing resettlement in Australia and in the everyday challenges of being a child or young person. This agency is coupled with the vulnerability that is also part of children’s experience, and children and young people can benefit from learning about change, loss and grief and the impacts of these for themselves and for other children and young people in their community. The Seasons for Growth program provides one such opportunity, and participating in a short additional training program helps Companions to build skills and confidence in providing a safe, confidential and supportive environment for children and young people to talk, learn together and help each other manage the complexity of the experiences they’ve had in their lives to date.
This article is an abridged version of an article that appeared in the Grief Matters Journal in December 2014. For a copy of the full article please email firstname.lastname@example.org
Please visit the website for upcoming Companion reconnectors featuring the refugee training mentioned in the article, or email us to express your interest in future training events.