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This article is from the In-Depth Report Tornado Alley: Twister Devastates Oklahoma City Suburb
See Inside November / December 2010

Soothing Traumatized Children

Coloring books developed by psychologists help kids avoid long-lasting emotional problems

Among the vital supplies sent to Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake, some of the most important may turn out to be thousands of kids’ coloring and activity books. Created by Mercy Corps, an international relief organization based in Portland, Ore., these workbooks are designed to help traumatized kids process what happened to them. Building on recent psychological research, the workbooks aim to provide children who do not have access to professional counselors the tools to heal on their own.

Recent research has revealed abnormal patterns of brain activation in people who have experienced psychological trauma. The hemispheres of the brain normally operate in concert, but there are subtle differences in their tasks. The right side tends to be responsible for more emotional, nonverbal processing, whereas the left hemisphere is more logical, linear and verbal. Many people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other stress-related disorders show increased activity in the right hemisphere of the brain—and in emotional, nonverbal processing—and decreased activity in the left, according to neuroimaging studies.

The goal in treating trauma is often to get the linear left hemisphere back into action, says Carol Dell’Oliver, a psychologist and trauma specialist in Portland who helped to develop the workbooks. The books sent to Haiti, entitled My Earthquake Story, are designed to “exercise that part of the brain in telling a more cohesive and coherent story,” she says. Prompts encourage kids to write and draw about what they were doing when the quake struck, what happened to their homes, and whether they saw any people doing good deeds in the aftermath of the disaster, among other things. In essence, the workbooks ask the kids: “How can you rewrite this story in a way that makes sense to you?” Dell’Oliver says.

Although it is hard to collect good psychological data in active disaster zones, there is encouraging evidence that the approach is working. Mercy Corps has also developed workbooks for children affected by Hurricane Katrina, conflict in the Gaza Strip and other calamities. (Dell’Oliver tweaks the workbooks depending on the children’s culture and the nature of the disaster.) A study of sixth through eighth graders displaced by Katrina revealed that the children who used the workbooks for 30 minutes every week experienced a nearly 20 percent reduction in PTSD symptoms. (The results have not yet been published but were presented at several scientific conferences.) When new disasters occur, Mercy Corps plans to be there, revising the workbooks once again to help a new set of kids in need.

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