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Edition 2: Nov 08

Anna Huber

> Anna Huber is a Canberra psychologist and former teacher and school counsellor.


Refugee children and adolescents have experienced trauma which often has ongoing impacts on their functioning post-settlement. Part of this trauma may be related to disruptions in their attachments to parents or other adult caregivers, or an experience of no physically or psychologically available attachment figure to provide protection and emotional support when they feel threatened.

Most teachers and school counsellors know that trauma can interfere with learning and lead to mental health problems. These problems can include anxieties, withdrawal and post traumatic stress disorder, depression, and emotional numbing. Such mental health problems may show up in internalising and externalising behaviours including hyperarousal and hypervigilance - which can look like ADHD - reactive behaviour related to traumatic reminders, emotional dysregulation and other fight, flight and freezing or dissociative responses.

It's often forgotten that children and young people have experienced this trauma in the context of their development and often in situations where their attachment figures were unable to protect them. Parents and caregivers can also be so caught up in their own trauma that they are unable to understand that the child has also suffered from trauma. With very young children, the parent may also assume that because the child does not speak about a traumatic experience they do not remember it.

The function of the attachment relationship, usually with the parent, is to protect the child and enable him or her to survive. When the child is stressed, they first need to experience a caregiver who is physically and psychologically available. They may need comfort, protection, help in organising their feelings, and above all, the ability to access the parent when they most need that reassurance.

When refugee children - who grow up continually exposed to threats to their safety - cannot access an available and responsive attachment figure for protection and reassurance, they are exposed to a chronic stress which is toxic to their developing brain. These children then adapt to the unavailability or incapacity of the caregiver to provide a protective presence, resulting in what is known as a disorganised attachment (if there is a caregiver). When there is no identifiable available attachment figure (such as when a child is orphaned), the child may develop an attachment disorder.

How do refugee children typically adapt? .Many do so by protecting themselves as a survival strategy, becoming very controlling by preschool age, either in a care-giving or in a punitive way. These behaviours can become entrenched unless a caregiver can take the role of a reliably available and responsive attachment figure for when the child is feeling stressed or under threat. For attachment disordered children, indiscriminate behaviour with relative strangers or failure to make any bids for protection and comfort may signal that the child has had no available attachment figure - a sign of extreme social and emotional deprivation which will affect both their development and their expectations in later relationships.

Schools often see refugee children and young people who have very well developed survival strategies. While these behaviours functioned to keep the child alive in the past, now that they are in a relatively safe environment such automatic behaviour can get in the child's way of normal social interaction and learning.

If schools look at these children's needs through an attachment perspective, it can help to understand what the child or young person is experiencing and in knowing how to respond. Establishing a sense of safety is critical. This can be done with clear boundaries, predictable and regularly structured arrangements throughout the school day (which prepare the child for change), as well as through developing safe and supportive relationships with each child.

The teacher and other regular caregivers should come to function both as a secure base from which the child can go out and learn as well as a safe haven to obtain reassurance. The child who has had disrupted attachments, trauma or no available attachment figure will need protection and comfort and help in understanding and regulating their disorganised feelings elicited by perceived threats in the environment. This approach allows them to feel calmer and less anxious so that problematic behaviours (either acting out or acting in) gradually reduce as the child comes to experience the teacher as a trusted attachment figure - reliably available when they need support.

The time taken to build relationships with these children pays dividends all round. By understanding that a teacher can come to function as a reliable and available attachment figure if the child experiences safety and emotional support in this relationship, schools can assist the child to learn, help reduce their challenging behaviour and anxieties and play an important role in their healthy development.

> Anna Huber
Anna is a Canberra psychologist and former teacher and school counsellor, co-founded and chairs the Canberra Region Attachment Network. In 2006 she gave testimony to the People's Inquiry into Detention on the effects of detention on refugee children. Some of this testimony will be included in the newly published book Human Rights Overboard by Linda Briskman, Susie Latham and Chris Goddard.


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