Group work is indispensable for children and youth in the aftermath of traumatic events. Group work can serve as a counterforce to bleak outcomes that result from isolation in the aftermath of disaster. It can help to empower young people by restoring human dignity, building coping skills, helping them to find their voice, and making things happen on personal, interpersonal, and social/community levels.
If “trauma isolates,” as Judith Herman says; group work connects. Following are practice principles for group work to help children and youth to heal and feel empowered in the aftermath of disaster by building individual coping skills and preventing isolation.
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 into what one has to offer post-trauma.
Principle 2 – Create groups for survivors that re-establish connections and rebuild a sense of community. According to Erik Erikson, collective trauma 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.”
Van der Kolk 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 their 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, as he puts it, “the most desperate plight.”
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 dis-empowering and involves intermittently succumbing to uninvited and intrusive thoughts and the tyranny of imagination.
Conclusion: These principles emphasize the value of group affiliation as an empowering counterforce to the dissolution of the bonds that link people to one another in the aftermath of collective trauma; and the accompanying disorientation, demoralization, and loss of connection. Group work is a potent tool for assisting young people to grieve; developing coping skills to counter traumatic grief; giving voice and encouraging action; and promoting resilience in the face of the most adverse conditions.
Portions of this article are drawn from a book chapter (10) by Andrew Malekoff (“Transforming the trauma of September 11, 2001, with children and adolescents through group work”) that appears in Transforming Trauma: An Empowerment Approach, Eds. Judith Wise and Marian Bussey, New York: Columbia University Press, 2007, 194-219. Andrew Malekoff, LCSW, CASAC is executive director/CEO for North Shore Child and Family Guidance Center in Roslyn Heights, New York; and Editor-in-Chief of Social Work with Groups, a journal of community and clinical practice, published by Taylor & Francis.