Practice Principles for Group Work with Children and Adolescents in the Aftermath of Disasters and Other Traumatic Events

Following are four interrelated and overlapping practice for group work with young people impacted by disasters and other traumatic events; to help them to build coping skills and overcome isolation. These principles can be (should be) incorporated into any evidence-based practice that utilizes group counseling.

Principle 1. Provide protection, support, and safety. Children and youth need safe places to go, with worthwhile things to do, and opportunities for belonging. And they need relationships with competent adults who understand and care about them. Living through traumatic events can contribute to a pervasive sense of fearfulness, hyper- vigilance and despair. Participation in a safe and supportive group can serve as a counterforce to the alienating and numbing aftermath of a traumatic event. Group workers must carefully attend to the structure of the group to ensure a basic level of physical and emotional safety that helps to cultivate a sense of trust. This requires both hands on practice savvy and ongoing advocacy to ensure sound environments for group development. A safe haven is a prerequisite for tapping in to what one has to offer post-trauma.

Principle 2. Create groups for survivors that re-establish connections and rebuild a sense of community. Collective trauma, according to Kai Erikson, is “a blow to tissues of social life that damages the bonds linking people together, and impairs the prevailing sense of communality.” Trauma leads to demoralization, disorientation, and loss of connection. In the aftermath of trauma individuals feel unprotected and on their own, as orphans who feel they must take care themselves. Participation in a supportive group addresses the primary need of trauma survivors to affiliate. Group affiliation can provide mutual support, reduce isolation, and normalize young (and older) peoples’ responses and reactions to what feels like a surreal situation. When addressed in a group context, these are important steps to rebuilding a sense of community.

Principle 3. Offer opportunities for action that represents triumph over the demoralization of helplessness and despair. “Talking about the trauma is rarely if ever enough,” advises noted trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk. He points to the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem and the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C., “as good examples of symbols that enable survivors to mourn the dead and establish the historical and cultural meaning of the traumatic events…to remind survivors of the ongoing potential for communality and sharing.” He goes on to say that this also applies “to survivors of other types of traumas, who may have to build less visible memorials and common symbols to help them mourn and express their shame about heir own vulnerability.” Examples are writing books or poetry, engaging in social action, volunteering to help other victims, or any of the multitudes of creative solutions that individuals can find to confront even the most distressing troubles. Competent group work requires the use of verbal and non-verbal activities. Group work practitioners must, for once and for all, learn to relax and to abandon the strange and bizarre belief that the only successful group is one that consists of people who sit still and speak politely and insightfully.

Principle 4. Understand that traumatic grief is a two-sided coin that includes both welcome remembrances and unwelcome reminders. Group work can provide a safe space for young people to grieve their lost loved ones in the aftermath of a disaster. However, there are dimensions of remembering that can be crushing absent the tools to cope, when one is traumatically bereaved. The two sides of the “remembering coin” are: welcome remembrances of a lost loved one and unwelcome reminders of a loved one who was lost. One side is empowering and involves addressing sadness and longing, by gradually welcoming loving memories. The other side is disempowering and involves intermittently succumbing to uninvited and intrusive thoughts and the tyranny of imagination. Included in the illustrations to follow are groups that use activities to elicit loving memories and to manage the stress of intrusive reminders.

These four principles offer readers a framework for group work with children and adolescents in the aftermath of disaster. Good planning, knowledge of the stages of group development and careful attention to transitions in the group are also critical components of a successful group work with this population.

Andrew Malekoff is Executive Director for North Shore Child and Family Guidance Center, Roslyn Heights, New York. E-Mail:

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