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The Influence of Previous Traumatic Experiences on
Haitian Child Refugees' Conceptualization of Fear

By: Jessy Guler, Courtney Guler, and Dr. Judit Szente | Mentor: Dr. Judit Szente


The results of this study suggest that the five Haitian children experienced prior traumatic experiences with the majority reporting moderately life-threatening experiences. The Haitian children's personal primary fear objects were exclusively composed of two of the eleven fear themes (animals and imaginary/cultural creatures), indicating that perhaps Haitian children's previous experiences have been highly subjected to these topical areas (Burnham, 2009).

In both the child's primary fear object and the child's interpretation of the lamppost fear object exercises, the most frequently reported fears were within the animal fear theme. In a study conducted by Burnham and colleagues (2008) on the fears of children after a hurricane natural disaster, results indicated that children reported fears associated with the repercussions of a hurricane frequently (i.e. looters, snakes, loose animals). The results from this study may indicate why children from a country experiencing many natural disasters, such as Haiti, report natural disaster aftermath related fears at a higher frequency than children who are not exposed to frequent natural disasters.

Furthermore, in both the child's primary fear object and the child's interpretation of the lamppost fear object exercises, the majority of the Haitian participants who identified an animal as the fear object reported reptiles or amphibians (e.g., snakes, alligators, or frogs). These results may reflect the theory developed by Burnham and Gullone (1997) that childhood fears can be culturally based due to the location and geographic characteristics of a country. The results from this study indicate that Haitian children may be more culturally prone to fearing amphibians, due to the fact that Haiti is an island with a high abundance of forest and aquatic terrain.

The imaginary/cultural creatures theme was the only fear theme represented in all three of the interview activities. The mystical interests of Haitian culture as well as the underlying religious beliefs of the Haitian people may explain the significance behind the imaginary/cultural creatures' multi-measure representation (Desrosiers & St. Fleurose, 2002). Further research is necessary to understand the potential influences of Haitian mystical culture and the Voodoo religion on Haitian children's fears

The results from the tree interpretation of fear object activity have specific interest to this study. The Haitian children reported fear themes that were more specifically related to life-threatening situations in the tree interpretation activity than in any other activity in the interview, with the exception of the imaginary/cultural creatures fear theme. Research has shown that activities that allow children to talk about fear through pictures enables them to discuss events that they would otherwise find difficulty in explaining (Driessnack, 2006). Further research is necessary to investigate how trees influence Haitian children to interpret fears in a more life- threatening way.

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