Responsible listening …and psychological first aid for children

By Felipe Sarti Castañeda 

Article 27 1. State Parties recognise the right of every child to a standard of living adequate for the child’s physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development. – Convention on the Rights of the Child (UN)

Responsible listening and psychological first aid are important techniques used to gauge the emotional state or people, families and groups who have experienced trauma through the course of their lives. Historically, Guatemalan children have frequently been victims of physical, sexual, and psychological violence, to the extent that there are thousands of instances of boys and girls having died as a result of this exploitation. This violence is predominantly carried out by adults, and studies have shown that a large percentage of these adults had familial ties with their victims. That is to say, in these cruel settings, one encounters fathers, mothers, grandparents, uncles, siblings and other relatives. Violence against children and other human beings in general is a classic feature of a patriarchal capitalist system, where authoritarianism rules family, education, and social life. The majority of children who have been victims of violence will consequently remain in a state of psychosocial defencelessness that will, in the medium- and long-term, lead to psychological and social relationship problems. 

The Guatemalan government and its institutions have implemented very few projects that will truly help these violated and unprotected children. It is for this reason that we consider the State to bear most of the responsibility for this situation, as it does not adequately protect the rights of children as defined in both national and international agreements. In light of this lack of protection, civil society and community organisations have to act more forcefully to ensure the prevention of child abuse, as well as ensuring that abused children receive adequate professional attention. 

In the field of social and educational psychology, the responsible listening technique can play an important role in the emotional rehabilitation of children. This technique consists not only of listening to what is expressed directly and verbally, but also of paying attention to the underlying feelings, ideas, or thoughts. Responsible listening is used by trained mental health personnel, but it is important to realise that many other people, despite not being medical professionals, can learn and utilise it (people such as teachers, nurses, firefighters, police officers, church members, midwives etc.). This technique can be complemented with audio-visual resources, as well as popular educational practices such as sociodrama or role-playing. With this suggestion we do not mean to take the place of professionals working in the field, rather we wish to support their work. 

In the specific case of Guatemala, the State is largely absent and there is a distinct lack of appropriate programmes to tackle these problems, in addition to there not being enough trained professionals to serve the population. In vulnerable contexts such as this, it is important within the sectors of education, health, and the wider community, to begin a process in which people can apply the aforementioned psychological framework, thus assisting health professionals. These personnel, after completing their training, should be endorsed by the Ministries for Public Health and Education, as well as by public and private universities, to recognise their training in this field. We must consider ourselves to be in a permanent state of emergency, and act accordingly to mutually support ourselves, particularly with regards to the taking care of children. 

The Guatemalan socioeconomic system makes children vulnerable through poverty and extreme poverty, which has dramatically increased levels of chronic malnutrition, to the extent that thousands of boys and girls exhibit deficiencies at the mental, physical, social, and educational level (María Claudia Santizo, UNICEF Guatemala Nutrition Officer, indicates in a report on the 1st of December 2020, that 49.8% of children are chronically malnourished, or one in two children under the age of 5).

The psychosocial tragedy of our children is worsened by the serious human rights violations experienced by migrant caravans in our region. These caravans comprise of both unaccompanied and accompanied children, who may be violated by the authorities colluding with organized crime groups and people smugglers, who should be arrested and brought to justice for these serious violations of children’s rights. However, this situation is difficult to resolve, as it is a highly profitable business and has the approval of the government, the economic elite, and the corrupt political class. 

Over the past year, due to the arrival of COVID-19, forced confinement, unemployment, and the worsening economic crisis, violence against children has been on the increase, with a government and its authorities either unable or unwilling to stop it. The data gathered by local and international organisations on this crisis is alarming – the Public Prosecutor’s Office for Children registered, between January and October 2020, 2553 cases of child victims, of which 42% were related to abuse, 33% were missing children and 25% were related to sexual violence. Childhood looks to have an uncertain and worrying present and future as, to date, the current government, as well as its predecessors, lack the political will to meet their historic commitment to the protection of children, thus maintaining their cloak of impunity. 

In my experience, clear, effective, and efficient coordination must be established between the State, universities, international organisations, and civil society and community organisations, who all work on issues of childhood, human rights, and psychosocial approaches. To achieve this, we would need, essentially, the political will of involved parties and, in the medium term, the creation of a national program that would be the first point of psychosocial contact for children who are victims of the different forms of child abuse that exist. Guatemalan children, now more than ever, need support that allows them to feel safe and dignified so that they, themselves, feel able to share their experiences of pain with the hope of being cared for comprehensively. 

Cover photo: Talea Miller, PBS NewsHour

  1. https://www.un.org/es/events/childrenday/pdf/derechos.pdf
  2. https://www.unicef.es/noticia/en-guatemala-el-498-de-los-ninos-sufre-desnutricion-cronica-maria-claudia-santizo-oficial
  3. https://www.mp.gob.gt/noticia/maina-reporta-177-personas-detenidas-vinculadas-en-violencia-sexual-de-ninez-victima/