Working with children and adolescents
Until 2010, we had never worked with children and adolescents before, but we had long recognised that asylum- seeking and refugee children needed help as many of them suffered traumatic experiences at a young age, which have since been compounded by the adversities they face in Britain.
Typical mental health problems asylum-seeking and refugee children suffer from are sleep and eating disorders, anxiety, depression and difficulties making friends at school, partly because they are frightened and often because of language barriers.
The most vulnerable group among children and adolescents are unaccompanied asylum seekers – mostly boys – who come to Britain alone, often taking months to get here in gruelling conditions. Many of them are from Afghanistan and other countries in the Middle East. Unlike adult asylum seekers, they are allowed to stay in the UK until they are 17 when they are subjected to the full asylum process and at risk of deportation. Self-harm is common among boys who are 15- to 17-years old. Their feelings of worthlessness and insecurity are made worse by not being able to do anything about their situation.
Most children and adolescents are living with at least one parent, but often the parent is struggling to cope with their own fears and anxieties. Their children, sometimes as young as 5- or 6-years old, end up caring for their parent. By 7- or 8-years old, a child understands the predicament they are in. When the parents panic, it is passed on to their children and a family neurosis develops. About half the children we have helped over the past three years have regular nightmares, which is hardly surprising when they are in such an insecure position.
Everything that affects parents, impacts on their children. The children know when their parents are worried and the children stop posing problems because they know they have to take on responsibilities, much more than you would expect.
Then there are mothers with babies. Babies are especially vulnerable to the stresses that are felt by their mother, who may have difficulty forming a bond with their child when they are feeling so anxious about their lives and struggling to get by. The effects of a poor attachment to their mother can be life-long for a child, which makes them particularly vulnerable to mental health problems later on in their lives, as well as creating difficulties relating to other people.
We try to address these problems by talking to the mother about child development, including the importance of play between the child and its mother. Some mothers do not know how to play in a western culture – they may never have seen toys before. Play is very important for all children, but many of the children we see have nothing much to do. They have no televisions or books in the right language. They also have no support networks, so we try to make sure all mothers and children are being supported by as many organisations and groups as possible.
With a 7-year old, we might use pictures to identify a problem. It’s particularly useful with children who don’t like talking. In the case of a young boy, the picture he drew revealed that he was anxious about being sent to another country by the Government, that his mother cried a lot and there was nothing he could do about it. He is frightened because he has only ever lived in the UK – ‘I don’t want to go anywhere that upsets my mother’. He gets upset because his mother is upset. Then he can’t sleep, he stops learning and gets anxious.
At school, they didn’t really understand why he was so anxious and why he cried in class which made him prone to bullying. We liaised with the school and explained his situation. The school then provided more support, which helped stop the situation deteriorating further.
Asylum-seeking families, like lone asylum seekers, are frequently moved from one property to another against their will, and often at very short notice. The lack of control over their lives leads to high levels of stress and anxiety, as well as creating more disruption for school-aged children. We work closely with schools who comment that asylum- seeking and refugee children often have days off because they might be accompanying a parent to the hospital or a GP surgery when they need the child to interpret for them. ‘When did you last have a period?’ is a question an 8-year old might be asked to translate.
Asylum seekers live in some of the worst housing in the city. Damp, broken windows, bug infestations, very little furniture and broken cookers are not uncommon. An alarm that went off in the middle of the night triggered flashbacks for a teenager who woke up screaming and sweating and came to Solace trembling with fear. Working with children and adolescents isn’t easy, but we can and do make a difference to their lives, not just by helping them with their anxieties, but working with other agencies so that they can better understand the enormous problems asylum-seeking children and refugees face.