Trauma occurs in children when there is neglect, emotional, physical or sexual abuse, or when they live or witness experiences that put them, or their caretakers, in situations in which their life or well-being is in great danger.
There was a time when most of our students coming from Central America had experienced war trauma. I remember the shockwave of listening to all these nervously giggling youngsters, talking about finding dead bodies lying by the side of the road, or hanging from a tree. Youngsters, who were talking to us about finding tests of courage among peers, in throwing pebbles to the mouth, or the eyes, of a cadaver. And even more shockingly, youngsters that had been forced to serve in the military at 10 or 12 years of age, as soon as they could carry a rifle, telling us horrifying stories of shooting in the dark not knowing exactly where, so scared that tears were rolling freely from their eyes and adult soldiers giving them “mota“(marihuana) so they could withstand the hell of a battlefield. “Campesino” girls, (girls in the rural parts of the countries), who had been abducted and raped by the guerrilla or the soldiers, while doing their daily chores; or taken by them to be their forced concubines while they were up in the mountains hiding. Furthermore, it is so sad to remember working with a little girl who had witnessed the rape of her mother by the soldiers who were looking for insurgents and passed by their home and found them alone. She had become selectively mute, speaking only at home, but never in school. And, yet again, so many little boys and girls, who witnessed their grandfather, or father, being killed by the guerrilla, or by the soldiers, or by someone looking for some sort of revenge. So many stories of violence that scarred the memories of these children, it was heartbreaking to listen to them and it overwhelmed the mental health system with adults, adolescents and children suffering from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and very few professionals were adequately trained and supervised to care for them. Nowadays, the war stories have subsided some in the present young generation, though they still live in many of the parents’ memories. We tend to forget that so many of the parents of our young patients come from this generation and their experiences in many have never healed, nor have they received the necessary professional attention. It is no wonder, then, that depression and generalized anxiety are quite prevalent among them and interfere many times with their parenting ability. A wonderful novel depicting this drama of the families caught between the violence generated by both the guerrillas and the army is a book called The Weight of All Things (Benitez, 2001), which describes the story of a boy and his grandfather in the mountains of El Salvador, their lives caught in the crossfire of the civil war.
Civil wars and political upheaval swept many countries in Latin American leaving profound scars in the individual and collective memories of their people all through the 70’s and 80’s with many testimonies of horrifying violations of human rights The war stories may have diminished, in some places, but not the stories of violence and the resulting trauma. The war left in all of those places two legacies: abundant arms and a culture of indifference towards the value of life. A fertile terrain now for gang violence and drug trafficking, the tremendous threat to the peaceful existence of many families trying to care for young ones and protect them from their call to violence. So many of our male adolescents can tell the same kind of terrifying experiences from the urban warfare that is the “maras” (gangs), reigning out of control, in the cities and towns of their countries. Many students have shared their stories in group counseling: watching their best friends get killed in a shoot by assault. At times, running and feeling the bullets, flying by so near; and other times, seeing corpses of youngsters from their neighborhood lying on the streets. Recounting how, many of their friends have already been killed and, who knows if they had stayed, maybe they would be dead too, even though, at the time, they were too young to be an official member of the gang.
Sergio would narrate how his grandmother could not really keep him at home and he would escape through the window at night, to run with his older friends and cousins, or, to go dancing to clubs who never check the kids age, and then be in the middle of violent confrontations, trying to hide or run. You could still see the panic in his eyes as he remembered those scenarios. Sergio could not sit still in class and was always disrupting the lessons. Teachers wondered whether he suffered from ADHD (Attention Deficit Disorder). Instead, listening to his stories I wondered if he was more probably a case of Post Traumatic Disorder. He had never talked to his parents about all the difficult experiences he had gone through and he refused to. He felt he could not share these experiences with his parents here. They would only get mad at him and yell. He could only open up to an older cousin who had lived similar experiences and understood them. Providentially, the cousin would always advise him to stay out of trouble here in this country and he would listen.
Pedro had a variation of the same story, except that this time it was his mother the one who could not keep him away from the streets and his much older friends. These teenagers both protected and “parented him” as if he was their little brother, but were continually amid the dangers of gang life. He had never before shared with anybody, all the very scary experiences he had gone through and refused to share them with his emotionally distant father, with whom he was now living after a long separation.
Living in rural environments, the youngsters are still not protected from violence. An unreliable and inadequate police force in the small towns makes for an abundance of violent crime, starting in a drunk quarrel and ending up in one of the men attacking the other with a machete, a long curved knife used both as an agricultural tool, as well as for self- defense. As in the case of Carlos, a very restless, disrupting youngster as described by the teacher, ever since he had arrived in school, who disclosed in group the experience of seeing his father head almost entirely separated from his body, as neighbors were bringing the cadaver back home after one of the many quarrels when the men had been drinking. He was only 5 years old at the time and since then he suffered from repeated nightmares about it. His sharing of this storyopened the door to several other such stories, in the other members of the group. Just about all of them had suffered some sort of trauma at a very young age, when exposed to death and violence of members of their own or extended family.
In the larger cities, the experience of the families involves the threat of kidnapping and attacks on the family by gang members, if their young male children refuse to join in the life of crime. We are witnessing more and more stories of this kind in the schools. Both male and female teenagers arriving with stories of having to leave, or they would have been killed, or some member of their family would have been killed, or perhaps a sister raped by urban gangs, if they refused to join them. Again, the police was seemingly unable to control such frequent threats of violence in their communities.
Liset would tell stories to us about gangs getting into the buses traveling to the city and holding a knife to each passenger, threatening to kill them if they did not hand in their money, cellular phones or anything of value. The bus driver was either an accomplice or was probably too scared to call the police, or do anything about it and everybody would just comply with the demands. This would happen week after week with total immunity.
Jorge’s aunt had a little “almacén” or corner store. She had to pay the “renta” or extorsion money so the gangs would leave them alone and not kidnap her 14 year old daughter as they had threatened in the phone. His uncle was of the opinion that it was better to befriend them and that way they would be “protected”, so he was of no help either.
Violence is then a permanent stressor in the lives of many of these urban and rural youngsters and their families and keeping their guard up to defend against it is an everyday task, which makes focusing on other parts of their lives very difficult. This sounds, tragically, very similar to the lives of many American families and youngsters living in some dangerous, inner city crime-ridden environments, right here in this country.