Final Report
Recreational stay and psychological-pedagogic support for traumatized Women and Children in Project SEKA, Splitska, Brac, Summer 2001

Group 2:

The second group came via the Autonomous Women's House Zagreb and the Advice Centre for Women and Children as Victims of Violence. The six women and 16 children forming this group came from different parts of Croatia, two women and their children were refugees from Bosnia-Herzegovina. All currently lived in the Women's House in Zagreb. The living space there is very restricted. All women and children sleep in one room with partitions between the two-story beds. Apart from this room, there is only one tiny living room, one children's room, a kitchenette and one bathroom. This crampedness means additional stress for the women and children in the situation they are in that is very difficult anyway.
Therefore, it is extremely important for these women and children to be able to leave that place at least for a couple of days and experience a period of light-heartedness in SEKA.

All women and children of this group had lived through years lasting domestic violence by the husband/father. One woman had just arrived in the Women's House; her traumatic experience was therefore very recent.
Except for one woman, all of them lived under very difficult economic conditions. Therefore, they were especially happy that Kuca SEKA facilitated them a holiday at the seaside. This was made possible with the aid of the "Light 2000 Trust".
Nevertheless, we were not able to organize sufficient financial aids for this group. Fortunately, our colleagues, the psychologists Dubravka Tokic and Marijana Smeric, agreed to work with women and children in an honorary capacity. We appreciate that and thank them very much.

Group work with the women:

As the women received regular counselling and psychological support in the Women's House, they were not so much interested in group sessions in the therapy room in SEKA. They rather felt a great need to "just relax", to take pleasure in the island's beauty and in the sea, and to enjoy being together with "the friends from the Women's House" without any stress or all day problems. This was a quite well functioning group, the women all knew and supported each other anyway. As mothers, they all felt relieved that we worked with their children and took care of them for the time of their stay.

Nevertheless, they were always interested in discussions and easy talks in the evenings on the big SEKA terrace.
Although the women had claimed they wanted to leave behind their everyday life, they often started talking about current problems with the (ex-) husband, difficulties with the authorities, problems to find an apartment or work. They told us about the experience of violent attacks that lay behind, and repeatedly mentioned problems regarding the children.

The women were very open for private talks as well. These conversations just happened to take place on the beach, on walks or in the evenings when the children had gone to bed. Besides the survived violence, the education of the children was a major topic. Main issues were: How to deal with a child's aggressive behaviour, how to cope with own aggressions, how to put up and maintain boundaries, how to teach children to be more independent. We talked about responsibility and overtaxing, about the effects of violent acts by father or mother on the children, the effects of visiting the father, about the children's fears, the mothers' fears... Especially the question of limits and boundaries was repeatedly raised. Therefore, we encouraged the mothers to try out alternative ways of putting up boundaries in several exercises and later on try that out on their children. The women were very proud when noticing that their change of behaviour was effective and that the children adapted to new rules after a short period of resistance. One woman who had been very stressed out and exhausted on arrival, felt more relaxed day by day and could enjoy being with her children again after a while.

The woman who had just managed to escape from her violent husband and had taken her three small children (2, 3, and 5 years old) with her to the Women's House, was still emotionally involved in the experience of maltreatment and felt a great need to talk with us about the suffered violent treatment and her decision to leave. She was in a difficult state, having daily contact with the maltreator who called her on her mobile phone, threatening and pressuring her. She was still not able to refuse those calls and badly needed the confirmation that she had a right to live a life without violence and had the duty as a mother to protect her children from violence. She needed help in "reorganizing my life and see it from another point of view". At the same time it was necessary to support her in encouraging the children to be more independent, and to help her in not allowing them to terrorize her. (Even the two-year-old would consciously mistreat her if she did not fulfil him every wish instantly, brutally dragging her hair, beating, pinching and biting her...!) She had to learn to put up boundaries and stay calm but firm, even when the children started crying then or had outbursts of rage.

Work with the Children

All 16 children of this group (2-16 years old) were still severely traumatized. Ten children were less than 6 years old. Four little boys were extremely aggressive, three little girls were very disconcerted and reserved. Nine children had great difficulties to concentrate or only even listen at the beginning of their stay. It was very helpful that the children knew each other from living together in the Women's House. Otherwise it would have been impossible to make these children form a community in such a short amount of time as they were so different in terms of age and showed so many behavioural disorders.
The oldest girl, a 16-year-old, saw herself as "already grown-up" and rather joined in with the women, but participated in the photo-project we carried out with the children.
The 9-year-old boy joined the two oldest boys (13 and 14 years old) who accepted him as playmate without any problems. The 14-year-old girl enjoyed playing with the smaller children and especially liked the role games.

In dealing with this very difficult group, our experience in the work with traumatized children and a strictly organized schedule turned out to be very useful. Even if the first days were rather strenuous for all of us, we could relate ourselves with the children quite quickly, due to our common activities. Most children were thrilled by the sea, the beach and the swimming pool, even though they were afraid of water in the beginning. With our support they credited themselves with more every day. After a couple of days, they dared to enter the water without a swimming belt and began to dive. Strangely enough, they first learned to dive and then to swim. "If I know how to dive, I don't have to be afraid of sinking", one boy explained to me quite logically. Only two boys were still very afraid of the water which corresponded with the special sort of maltreatment they had received. Nevertheless, they managed to overcome their fear at the end of their stay and felt ready to enter the water, first using a swimming belt, but finally starting to learn to swim without the belt.

We could make the children listen to us after more or less 2 days of intense time we spent with them. They were able to be quiet now, at least for some time, they managed to keep the rules or at least remember them after they had broken them. We had little meetings in the therapy house for children (the "kucica") every evening, in which we talked about the past day, what had been nice and what hadn't, and in which we repeated the rules to make it easier for the children to get used to them.

On the third evening, we started our photo-project. The children were so excited about the fact that every one of them got a real camera that it took some time for them to calm down and actually listen to our instructions. We parted the children in three groups to explain how the camera worked and what they had to keep in mind to take good pictures. The following excursion through the village went by without any major problems, but all "aunties" (SEKA workers) shouted themselves hoarse.

The Kucica was THE attraction for these children as well. Because they loved playing there, they were ready to stick to all the rules. Except for the first two evenings, there was almost no screaming and no fighting to be heard from the little house. Even the most aggressive children turned kind and constructive all of a sudden, and our praise increased their exemplary behaviour to a higher extent. As we let the mothers know how greatly their children behaved, they got compliments from them as well. At the same time we made the mothers aware and proud of their children's skills and strong parts, which on the one hand improved the relationship between mother and child and on the other hand made the mothers realize how much there is to be achieved by praising instead of censuring and shouting.
In the Kucica, the smaller children liked to puzzle, paint or look at picture books, but they liked best to play role games with dolls. Normally, one SEKA worker participated in those games to give them support in playing, to make sure that every child got his or her move, and to give them the chance to assimilate experiences they had had. Generally, the games' plot included the following topics: Violence, catastrophes, illness, death, the separation of the parents... In the plot, fathers were either "bad" or absent. Many times the children started the plot with a peaceful, nice scene (e.g. mother and children at home, a birthday party or something similar) that was later on interrupted by an excess of violence. After acting out their aggressions, the children were sometimes able to develop constructive solutions with our help, but apparently the girls found that more important and were better and quicker at finding solutions than the boys.
The little boys often took the part of "the bad guy" in the game and were obviously almost pleased when they had to accept a punishment such as "imprisonment".
The 9-year-old boy and one of the younger boys loved to play on the "city carpet" together. (That is a carpet that has streets and houses etc. painted on it and can be used as a stage to put on scenes). Using toy cars, toy planes, little figures and animals, they put on "every day city stories" that were mainly about catastrophes, accidents or crime. In the last playing session, the "trial" against the "perpetrators" took place.
The two oldest boys and the 9-year-old often played with LEGO and took days in building a science fiction world. In this world, a battle between some heroes and "the evil" was going on, both parties using high-tech material (space shuttles, security systems, rockets, weapons etc.). They willingly told us about what was happening in their world, which lead to interesting discussions about power and powerlessness, strength, and justice.

One 4-year-old-boy who had been one of the most difficult to handle, very much enjoyed inviting us to "have coffee and ice cream in his house". There he entertained us to several meals and constantly cooked, cleaned up, and washed the dishes. We expressed our enthusiasm about him being such a modern young man who knew how to do all those things...
One time we had followed his invitation and had already had lots of coffee and ice cream, he suddenly asked for payment. First, we were all very angry, because he had said we were invited, but then it turned out that he had heard his mother saying she did not have any money left. This was now his way to try and "earn money" to help her. We could see that and put in our "money" which made him very content.

Beside the trip with "aunty" Mirjana's boat and the painting of T-Shirts as memory of their stay in SEKA, there was the photo-project and the exhibition of the best photos as third surprise. The little photographers proudly listened to the eulogies about their photos and their skills, and happily took the whole group's applause.

It really impressed us to see how much the children (and partly the women) had changed during this short period of 11 days. It was very easy to work with the children in the last days: None was aggressive, they were paying attention; they mostly kept the rules, they tended to be more obliging and help each other. Conflicts could be solved without outbursts of rage. It was touching how openly the children showed us their affection at the end.

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