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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


Immigrated, diversified family systems are a prominent population within the United States (Strekalova & Hoot, 2008). In recent years, there has been a dramatic increase in the arrival of families of various ethnic and cultural backgrounds. One of the most vulnerable and at-risk subsets of the global population are refugees (Strekalova & Hoot, 2008). Refugees are defined "as individuals outside their country of origins who fear persecution related to race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion" (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2010, p. 14). Refugee children and their families are forced to flee their native country in hopes of asylum in a new host country (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2002). An estimated 15.2 million refugees exist worldwide, nearly half of whom are children and adolescents (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2011).

The refugee experience is frequently characterized by increased exposure to war, conflict, and trauma in comparison to the experiences of non-refugee individuals (Fantino & Colak, 2001). The child refugee experience is unique to adult refugees, in that they are subjected to adult problems and experiences that are developmentally beyond their understanding and ability (Bash & Zezlina-Phillips, 2006). Strekalova and Hoot (2008) theorize that child refugees' behavior and interpretations of their world and environment may be atypical in comparison to other immigrant or American-born children. Research has shown that children's previous traumatic experiences may have been a negative impact on their psychological development (Dubow, Huesmann, & Boxer, 2009). One way in which children frequently react to traumatic exposure is through the development of fear (National Institute of Mental Health, 2002).

A childhood fear can be defined as a child's "adaptive reaction to real or imagined threat" (Gullone, 1996, p. 144). The development of fear is a normal component of childhood (Morris & Kratochwill, 1985). However, when children express and rely upon their fears in excess, maladaptive reactions and inhibition of development can occur (Craske, 1997). The most frequently reported maladaptive reactions to childhood fear include "regression, irritability, insomnia, depression, aggression, poor school performance, and poor social and peer relationships" (Yearwood, 2003, p. 131). The development of childhood fears is characteristically influenced by a child's frequent exposure to specific experiences (Burnham, 2009). Burnham (2009) cites global situations such as war, trauma, disease, and disasters as prominent sources of fear development for children.

In a cross-cultural study performed by Burnham and Gullone (1997), results indicated that a sample of American and Australian children shared more similarities in their most frequently reported fears (i.e. "not being able to breathe," "being kidnapped," "someone in my family dying," and "myself dying") than differences. However, the researchers also suggested that the differences reported between the fears of American versus Australian children may derive from specific cultural influences, such as nationally prevalent societal issues and the location and geographic characteristics of a country. For example, American children were the only participants in the study who reported the fear of "murderers" frequently, and Australian children were the only participants in the study who reported the fear of "sharks" frequently.

Lahikainen and Kraav (1996) argue that fear is a crucial component of a child's insecurity. Children use their fears to make sense of their relationship with their external world. Childhood fears are mediated both culturally and socially (Ollendick, Yule, & Ollier, 1991; Ollendick, Yang, King, Dong, & Akande, 1996); therefore, children's fears are a depiction of their insecurity in relation to their external world (Lahikainen & Kraav, 1996; Taimalu, Lahikainen, Korhonen, Kraav, 2007). The refugee experience is inherently accompanied by abundant uncertainty (Daiute & Lucic, 2010). The process of seeking and gaining asylum in a new country can be a long and indefinite process (Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, 2013), and upon resettlement a refugee child typically experiences new uncertainties in regard to their family's living arrangements, employment status, and overall acculturation to the United States (Landale, Thomas, & Van Hook, 2011).

The development of a refugee child's fears can be viewed as a representation of a way in which the refugee experience influences the normal development of a child. Another way in which fear can be observed in refugee children is in how refugee children interpret fear and danger in a situation. Backett-Milburn and Harden (2004) found that children develop their personal constructs of risk and danger based on familial experiences. The study showed that children learn to negotiate threats against one's safety by interacting with their family and inadvertently being influenced by their individual family member's life experiences (Backett-Milburn & Harden, 2004). Therefore, a child refugee's ability to interpret fear based on their personal comprehension of risks may weigh heavily upon not only their own refugee experience, but also on the experiences of other members of their family and their reactions to such experiences.

This study investigates the topical components of fear among refugee children. More specifically, this study examines how previous traumatic experiences influenced Haitian refugee children's fears and how they interpreted fear from a picture observation exercise. The authors conducted this exploratory study on Haitian refugee children's experiences due to Haiti's high prevalence rate of crime/violence, natural disaster fatalities/destruction, poverty, and political corruption (Brown & Brown-Murray, 2010).

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