All Jiyan Foundation centers are open to children and young people, and a quarter of those we support are under 18. Shara Ghafoor, a psychotherapist at the Jiyan Foundation in Kirkuk, explains how therapy for children works and how it helps young patients and their families.
One big difference is that young children can’t express their suffering in words: they show us how they feel through their behavior. So we need to observe children to see how they behave, and that can tell us how they are feeling. Children who are struggling can become quiet and withdrawn, or they might avoid contact with other children. Others can’t control their aggression and shout or hit other children.
We have a play room with toys and musical instruments. We let the girls and boys play, and initially we might just observe them and give them time to develop trust in us. It’s important that they feel safe. When I talk to them, I always ask simple and open questions. This gives them space to open up, and they don’t feel pressured or judged. We also use art therapy and let children paint and draw. This shows us how they are feeling, and sometimes they will start talking as a result. It’s always up to the child to decide if he or she wants to talk or not.
Yes, it’s essential to involve the parents. It helps us understand the child’s past experiences and family environment. We also explain to the parents how therapy works, and what their children need. And we encourage them to examine and reflect on their own behavior.
Children come to us with a wide range of issues and problems. In our center in Kirkuk we support local families, and we also visit the nearby Laylan camp for displaced people and offer mental health care there. The families in the camp have fled from ISIS and have been living in tents for years, but they can’t go back to their cities and villages because their homes have been destroyed. It isn’t safe for them yet. Many children in the camp suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and adjustment disorder.
Local families have problems too. There is tension between the different ethnic and religious groups, which has increased since Iraqi government forces took over Kirkuk in October 2017. The situation causes stress for families. When parents are stressed and anxious, they can’t look after their children well or give them the love and support they need. Many boys and girls we see in our center suffer from hyperactivity, anxiety, and depression.
We use different therapeutic approaches which are all helpful. Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is a method that works well with children, helping them to process traumatic experiences. As I mentioned, play and art therapy allow us to understand the children, giving them an outlet for their feelings. We also use relaxation exercises to help them become calmer. We can’t change people’s living situation, but therapy helps children and their families cope and feel better.