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Section 26
Timing Crisis Counseling for Children Following a Traumatic Event

Question 26 | Test | Table of Contents

First of all, it must be stressed that there are many possible forms of crisis intervention. Thus, it is absolutely vital that the exact form of the intervention used be operationalized and described. Secondly, the intervention of Critical Incident Stress Debriefing was developed by Mitchell (1983) for application to groups of emergency workers not primary victims. Thirdly, "psychological debriefing" as described by Dyregrov (1991,1997) was developed for use with groups of survivors, and it makes group processes central to the whole intervention. Fourthly, the recently attempted meta-analyses of published random control trials have mainly examined very brief, individual crisis interventions bearing little resemblance to psychological debriefing and at times applied to situations where major stress reactions are not even expected (Bisson, et al. 2000; Dyregrov 1998; Yule 2001a).

It has to be admitted that there are very few studies that evaluate the effects of psychological debriefing with children. It has also to be faced that inappropriate intervention given by inadequately experienced people and given at the wrong time can possibly slow down natural recovery if not actually make things worse. There is a responsibility on child mental health services to undertake proper evaluations of crisis interventions.

Having said that, there is a need to respond to children traumatized by an emergency event. What should be done? There are two studies that have generally positive outcomes. Yule and Udwin (1991) screened some survivors from a shipping disaster--children from the same school--and provided a structured psychological debriefing 10 days after the incident. The children were offered help individually or in small groups, and it was found that those who scored highest on the screening battery were those who availed themselves of the offer. Five months later, the children were doing better than those in a neighboring school that had not arranged crisis help for their charges. However, in this natural experiment that was not planned, debriefing and early intervention are confounded.

Stallard and Law (1993) show more convincing evidence that debriefing greatly reduced the distress of girls who survived a school bus crash. The researchers provided help a few weeks after the crash, and the girls responded positively to only two group sessions.

However, we still do not know when best to offer such debriefing to survivors of a disaster, nor indeed whether all survivors benefit. There is evidence from work undertaken in the Armenian earthquake (Pynoos et al. 1993), in many action research studies undertaken under the auspices of UNICEF in Bosnia, and more recently from the Turkish and Greek earthquakes (Giannopolou 2000; Yule 2001b), that group interventions many months after an event can still greatly reduce psychological suffering.

Based on this slowly emerging evidence, on my own experience, and on many fruitful discussions with colleagues around the world, I make the following recommendations:
Schools and other agencies should undertake risk analyses and prepare to deal with emergencies.
Agencies charged with meeting the psychosocial needs of children after disasters should invest in training key staff.
Key staff also need to have experience in helping children who experience bereavement.
Children's safety, security, medical, and other physical needs need to be met before psychological interventions are offered.
There is little point in starting any psychosocial help until children are coming out of shock, dissociation, and disbelief. This means that group help should not be arranged during the first few days: 5-to-10 days after the incident seems optimal. Some contact needs to be made indirectly immediately; this can be by way of suitable leaflets.
Groups should be led by suitably prepared individuals with access to supervision.
Manuals based on good outcome studies should be used in preference to home-grown manuals.
Psychosocial interventions should not be confined to "one-off"--single occasion--meetings.
Children should be screened and monitored, and appropriate further help arranged as necessary.

The current debate regarding crisis intervention for primary survivors of disasters centers around the timing of the initial intervention. My argument is that during the first few days, children are likely to be in shock. They need reassurance and to be reunited with their parents. Thought should be given to such reunion occurring at the scene of the disaster, so that children can better link a variety of reminders with safety signals. Some contact should be made by mental health professionals, but the adult literature strongly suggests that the wrong sort of contact in the first few days may be harmful--hence, the recommendation that 5-to-10 days afterwards is probably optimal. Obviously, an issue as important as this should be settled by evidence rather than theorizing.
- Yule W, When disaster strikes--the need to be "wise before the event": crisis intervention with children and adolescents; Advances In Mind-Body Medicine, 2001 Summer, Vol. 17, Issue 3

Personal Reflection Exercise #12
The preceding section contained information about timing crisis counseling for children following a traumatic event.  Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.

Review: Crisis responses for children and young people – a systematic review of effectiveness, experiences and service organisation (CAMH-Crisis)

Edwards, D., Carrier, J., Csontos, J., Evans, N., Elliott, M., Gillen, E., Hannigan, B., Lane, R., & Williams, L. (2023). Review: Crisis responses for children and young people - a systematic review of effectiveness, experiences and service organisation (CAMH-Crisis). Child and adolescent mental health, 10.1111/camh.12639. Advance online publication.


Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Brand, B. L., Kumar, S. A., & McEwen, L. E. (2019). Coverage of child maltreatment and adult trauma in graduate psychopathology textbooks. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 11(8), 919–926.

Kiser, L. J., Miller, A. B., Mooney, M. A., Vivrette, R., & Davis, S. R. (2020). Integrating parents with trauma histories into child trauma treatment: Establishing core components. Practice Innovations, 5(1), 65–80.

Willie, T. C., Powell, A., Callands, T., Sipsma, H., Peasant, C., Magriples, U., Alexander, K., & Kershaw, T. (2019). Investigating intimate partner violence victimization and reproductive coercion victimization among young pregnant and parenting couples: A longitudinal study. Psychology of Violence, 9(3), 278–287.

According to Yule, what is the optimal time after a traumatic event to begin crisis intervention and counseling for children? To select and enter your answer go to Test.

Section 27
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