Think of the entire city of Eilat as being a therapeutic milieu. I like to. In a therapeutic milieu, as I learned working on the adolescent unit at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, everything in the community that a trauma specialist creates, sees, feels (“every move you make…”) must be done with a clinical understanding and a clinical response. It’s like being in language immersion class where you speak in that tongue, no matter what. Everything you do with children here, you are always thinking, how do I understand what this short human being is saying, and what is my correct and loving response?
In our milieu, a resort hotel by the Red Sea, our Hashomer Hatzair team of counselors (ages 19-32 and easily spotted in their blue youth movement unis) work and play with children evacuated from kibbutzim. In every situation, we regard each child’s behavior as communication. People communicate needs by the way they act, right? If a kid does something destructive, if they are mean to others, this says something is intolerable in their little mental sky and body.
Recently, we saw a kid kicking a counselor in the head. The reason they acted this way was a traumatic response to the inconceivable situation they find themselves in down here. Overwhelmed about a parent who was kidnapped or killed, they’re also thrown off by how an adult acts around them. The child attempts to communicate what, in their experience, has happened to them; there is a need that isn’t being met. Out of control with anxiety, fear, grief, anger, and shame, they look to us because we’re the adults. Our task has always been to take care of the children and so we adults work to set up a framework of normality and safety. But the child is saying, I’m not ready for it. There is far too much going on inside to be contained in this setting.
What are the children asking us for?
The Nir Oz and Nir Yitzhak hotel youth counselors are among the most brilliant and beautiful people I’ve ever met. Their loving approach and supportiveness are something to see. I see them give everything, projecting enthusiasm, every day, in the face of all this. How they operate safe, structured creative activities every day – it’s what blows my mind and renews my hope. But when a child reaches a Do Not Pass Go juncture, what’s called for is an intervention and a clinical assessment from experts trained in child development and psychology. The Hashomer youth counselors do not diagnose, that’s not their job.
Another temporary resident of Eilat is experiencing extreme mental disarray. The boy, in an anger fit, was uprooting palm trees on the hotel patio. Everyone sat around doing nothing. Oh well, just something that happens to a kid.
No. Not here, not now, not in this milieu.
Other children in the vicinity – do they feel safe? Are they being given attention right now? Do what you can to create the space: let’s stand in a semi-circle, not to threaten the boy, but enough to contain what is going on. By being a quiet presence.
Then, we make an action plan! First, we contact the educational coordinator at their kibbutz, to help us understand what the child’s behavior was like in the communal context. We inform the parents (if they’re here) that our goal, humbly, is to provide some relief and hope that the ordinary framework of youth development can continue. To let them know that there is a future, and life is going on. Counselors know only that children left their homes and find themselves in an extremely precarious, unstable, what’s-next? space. We’re seeing them without knowing their history. Part of which was being in a family living under shelling for all of the child’s life…
Then a referral gets made to the resilience center here in Eilat. In 2005, because of Israel’s long history of conflict, a coalition network for national trauma response was founded: The Israel Trauma Coalition. The ITC brought trauma out of the shadows, and into the mainstream discourse in Israeli society. Perhaps the greatest contribution the ITC has made (after recognizing the effects living in a conflict zone has had on soldiers and civilians) is by making the concept of resilience a community standard. Resilience centers are the emergency preparedness response framework for dealing with trauma. Following the indescribable horror six weeks ago, the already existing ITC infrastructure was quickly mobilized and expanded. There are dozens of these life-changing places located where they are needed: now in Eilat too, which is being targeting from Yemen and Hamas simultaneously.
The ITC workers move hand-in-hand with those in need, from crises through recovery, providing what they consider the watchword of their faith: “therapeutic continuity.” Their milieu is everywhere we are. Their community, every one of us.