Peacebuilding en Las Américas – September 16, 2015

Helping Guatemalan Youth Recover from Trauma

People in our partner communities have the daily challenges of finding employment, getting an education, or building a peaceful family. Beyond this, people are also living in the presence of poverty, gang violence, natural disasters, and political uncertainty, much of which is out of their control.

This regular exposure to insecurity and trauma can make it difficult for people to know what kind of help to ask for. And it can be hard to know what kind of help to give.

Our response is to meet people where they are in their lives and support them in handling transitions and making decisions as they go through times of great difficulty.

When does a challenge become a crisis?

Daily violence can vary from an armed robbery on a bus to the not-so-subtle threats of a gang member who knocks on the door to collect money. These events happen so regularly that they become a part of daily life–not ‘normal’ perhaps but common, and part of the experience of everyone in the community.

A crisis is defined as a time of intense difficulty, trouble, or danger. Its origins come from the Greek meaning for ‘decision’ or ‘decide’, which describes how a crisis can also be a time when difficult or important decisions must be made.

Some crises are on-going, such as gang violence or an abusive parent, and others hit all at once, such as a landslide or violent crime. Often, the people we work with are managing more than one crisis at a time, and the stress can lead to significant health problems in adults and children.

Toxic stress impacts health

Stress is the body’s normal response to challenging events or environments. Positive stress—the first day of school, a big exam, a sports challenge—is part of growing up, and parents or caregivers help children prepare for and learn how to handle positive stress, which is moderate and doesn’t last long.

But too much stress–toxic stress–in children, happens when an event causes a child’s brain and body to produce an overload of stress hormones—such as cortisol and adrenalin—that harm the function and structure of the brain. Toxic stress is the kind of stress that can come in response to living for months or years with a screaming alcoholic father, a severely depressed and neglectful mother, or a parent who whips a child.

Read a study about how we can create healthier and happier adults by understanding and addressing the ways childhood trauma impacts a child’s developing brain.

Helping youth and their caregivers handle stress from crises

The experiential format of the workshops we offer on the topics of trauma healing and nonviolence are effective because it allows participants to meaningfully apply their reflections from the activities to their lives, based on their individual needs.

We work with many youth who live with toxic stress. And we also work with the adults who care for these youth—caregivers, parents, and teachers.

A Basic AVP workshop was held in June at a youth detention center for girls in Guatemala. The participants were adults—the director, deputy director, guards, social worker, psychologist, teachers, and kitchen staff.

Lorena Escobar, the AVP Guatemala Coordinator, said, “I never imagined that the work of AVP could change their ideas and thoughts so fast—and with the desire to put it into practice after only a 20-hour workshop.”

Jesus, a 16-year-old student in Guatemala, took an Advanced AVP workshop in July at an alternative middle school where AVP Guatemala has on on-going relationship and where ‘mini’ workshops have been incorporated into the curriculum every Friday.

Jesus talks kindly about his classmates, looks for Transforming Power, and expects the best. But just six months earlier, during a Basic AVP workshop, he was very restless, made jokes about everything, and didn’t pay attention. The teachers and facilitators have noticed that he’s changed a lot.

Recently, Jesus had a violent situation at home with his family. He told his teachers that he tried to look for a way to be nonviolent because of what he had learned in AVP.

It’s not easy to know how to respond to the most difficult situations in our lives. But when we have the tools to manage crises, it’s easier to find the clarity we need to make decisions that move us forward and lead to positive change.

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