Creative Therapy with Children Seeking Asylum
The universal languages of play and creativity can be crucial to work with unaccompanied minors who have arrived in the UK seeking asylum. As we mark Children’s Mental Health Week 2021, with its theme of ‘Express Yourself’, Integrative Arts Therapist Sheetal Amin invites us to listen to some of the experiences these children share with her – and reflects on the role of creative practice in helping them externalise and make sense of their trauma.
What does it mean to come to this country unaccompanied? What does it mean to seek asylum? What does it mean to be forced to escape from the country of origin? What does the journey entail?
These are some of the questions I hold in mind when I work with children and young people who enter UK borders unaccompanied and are seeking a place of safety and asylum. In this work, I am hoping to help children who have experienced displacement to develop their sense of identity, confidence and self-esteem in a new land. This is their land and their future – and these children are also our future.
Children and young people in this situation often flee their country of origin in the most sudden and traumatic of circumstances. They are fleeing terror and they are terrified. The parents’ wishes are for their child to find refuge in a land that is safe, where they can have a future and continue their family legacy. Often parents will have risked all they have, which includes sending their child alone as way of securing their safety.
The journey is often traumatic with various modes of transport including boat, car, bus, or truck. They could have not eaten for days. They could have witnessed, or been a victim of, horrendous acts of torture, rape, violence.
Often they enter the borders of this country in hiding, being smuggled in, and sometimes their first point of contact with authorities is when they are discovered by the police. They may be placed in a cell until their origin is established, an interpreter is found, and a social worker is assigned. Then they become the responsibility of the state, assigned the status of LAC (looked after children). They are often taken to either a foster placement or a residential home/supported living semi-independent home.
What is it that young people tell me about their initial experiences of entering our country, and what is it that they want professionals to know and understand?
A 17-year-old boy fled from Iran. He was separated from his younger siblings on route. He told me he was found in a box in the back of a lorry by the police. He was taken to the police station and remained in a small room with a toilet until a social worker came and brought him to the semi-independent house he is in now. He talked about the time it took for people to tell him about his siblings. He talked about being all alone in a foreign land where he did not know the language and did not know the rules.
This boy told me about deep sadness, isolation and anxiety. He talked about the fear of being sent to prison, of being tortured and killed if he were to be sent back and the risks to the rest of the family as they helped him escape.
As therapists, we recognise the impact of adverse childhood experiences on emotional wellbeing and physical health. How do these children express their distress in a land which is not their own? How do they tell us of their experiences if we do not speak their mother tongue? How do they share their narrative with people who are unfamiliar? How can we help?
These children remain hyper vigilant. They do not know who to trust, and they do not know if you are a safe figure. They may be overwhelmed in their mind and in their body with the neurochemical impacts of trauma, emotional pain and distress. Establishing a sense of safety and alliance are the foundations of trust. Supporting them to have stability and basic needs met is primary.
It is then that we can begin to help these children and young people to externalise what has happened to them, telling their story through, for example:
- Image making
- Sand tray
- Use of miniature objects to map out their journey
- Narrating the stages of their lived experiences
- Using timelines, which can support with mentalising
Play and creativity are universal languages, helping with the development of coherent narratives. Showing you what they have been through can help children to create order out of the chaos. Having someone walk alongside them, accompanying them in this terrifying journey as it slowly unfolds in their descriptions, is the beginning of their healing and recovery.