Experts talk: How kids cope with violence

Children can thus either become like the aggressor or internalise it emotionally; both behaviours leading to disturbed worldviews.
Children can thus either become like the aggressor or internalise it emotionally; both behaviours leading to disturbed worldviews.
Children can thus either become like the aggressor or internalise it emotionally; both behaviours leading to disturbed worldviews.

Many on social media were unable to caption the image of eight-year-old Ayan crying in shock at the body of his beloved mamu (uncle) Mudassir Khan, massacred in the Delhi riots 2020. Ayan has come to join the list of Vietnam’s ‘Napalm Girl’, Syria’s Aylan Kurdi and Omran Daqneesh, Iraq’ Samar Hassan, Steve McCurry’s Afghan Girl… iconic war photographs that make you believe humanity is dead. 

Children living in conflict zones, who have lost their home and kin, witnessed mob lynching and other hate crimes, mangled bodies, and/are themselves victims of such atrocities are known to carry such trauma for life.

But trauma can also rears its ugly head in children, young adults, the post-millennial ‘Tik Tok/Instagram-hungry generation at the consuming end of such news reports and visuals. For these ‘woke’ young guns, the anti-CAA NRC protests, Shaheen Bagh, Articles 370 and 377, Kashmir shutdown, COVID-19, Amazon fires, climate crisis… matter. 

With a lot happening in Delhi and the world scene over the last few months, kids who have witnessed violence directly or indirectly can feel traumatised, caution Delhi-based experts from mental health, education and theatre. Children can thus either become like the aggressor or internalise it emotionally; both behaviours leading to disturbed worldviews.

Abort mission

Dr Amit Sen, Co-Founder of Children First, says that violence can shake a child’s world view and sense of security. The child psychiatrist notes that children traumatised by any level of violence, are known to develop depression, anxiety, panic attacks, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or substance misuse disorder. “So, unless a pretty dramatic step like therapy or counselling is taken, there’s a strong possibility of them carrying this on an emotional or behavioural level.”

He’s also against adults shielding children from news on violence. But this tactic can backfire, as it did for Suddhodana with son Prince Siddharth who became Gautama Buddha. “Some parents want their kids to only know that life is full of love and harmony. But children are very smart and are able to recognise when something is not right in their community and get deeply disturbed when their curiosity leads them to access social media and TV channels, and they find it there.”

Emulate the oppressor

Vikramjeet Sinha, Director of BOAT (Building on Art Therapy), warns about a kind of trauma usually noticed in mental health experts called ‘vicarious trauma’ – of people responding to disturbing news as if it is happening to them.

“Vicarious trauma is this ‘as if’ notion. It’s ‘I love those disturbing images!’ The child gets hooked on to this pain-body through the constant news reminders.” 

Theatre veteran Feisal Alkazi; Dr Amit Sen; school coordinator Rannu Pathak
Theatre veteran Feisal Alkazi; Dr Amit Sen; school coordinator Rannu Pathak

Working with children in conflict zones over 20 years, Sinha has come to observe how certain kids on viewing the negative acts of perpetrators, arrive at the conclusion that ‘Might is Right’ (a tactic identified by Arthur Desmond in his eponymous 1890 book, inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche).

“Some kids will follow whoever the leadership rests with. They won’t get disturbed by the victims, but ‘role model’ the oppressor. This kind of trauma involves acting the trauma out to other people. I slap you, you will slap someone else back. Because you think slapping is legitimate. Violence is more and more getting justified, as the right way to be.”

Drama is one of the solutions Sinha uses to works with sensations, memories, feelings and behaviours in children, using metaphors and images.

“There’s a certain metaphor, the ‘wounded metaphor’, which is a transformational healing method that organically comes out as the child goes through acting the play. So, you want to show blood? Want darkness? We’ll let you play it out in a good framework. We first establish what you are feeling, allow the repressed stuff to come out and then look for antidotes.”

Veteran theatre director Feisal Alkazi, who has worked with kids who witnessed the 1984 anti-Sikh riots and the Assam Movement, says the more you talk about any issue, the more you come to terms with it. “The more you bottle it up, the more traumatic it’s going to be.”

He recounts the play on the Diary of Anne Frank that he staged with a few kids from South Delhi schools at BC Pal Auditorium at CR Park. “The suggestion from the kids themselves who found it relevant to what’s happening in Delhi today. It was so ironic that the day we did the show, December 15, was when the Jamia violence took place. Many of the kids live in that vicinity, at New Friends Colony, so they started getting frantic calls after the show. The show had such an amazing resonance with the kids and audience who found it therapeutic.”

Rannu Pathak, Senior Coordinator at Mount Abu Public School, Sector 5, Rohini, who also teaches Political Science to Class 11 and 12 students, says she tells her students how violence is politically orchestrated and not to trust social media for the fake news it coughs up.

She has given projects and held classroom discussions with the students on Article 370, Ayodhya dispute, CAA, Operation Blue star, etc.

She says, “I don’t harp on what is right or wrong, because at their age they are yet to form an opinion and back in the four walls of their homes, they may get to hear something else and get confused. I only tell them that every issue has two sides, how rumour mongering instigates society, that half ignorance is dangerous, to have an opinion that is backed by logic but not get carried away by it, and learning to agree to disagree…which is what democracy is about. We try to make our children responsible citizens.”

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