She is happy today because she discovered that it is not right to educate children by “giving them little slaps” as she calls hitting them.
“I have learnt to calm down. Now I breath strongly, slowly, deeply, and continue…inhale and exhale. This lets the anger pass a little and helps me relax quite a lot”.
There are many situations of children being mistreated, particularly in communities ravaged by violence: a scourge that ends up creating hostile environments that affect children’s mental health and development. However, how do we overcome these legacies and protect children from these indelible marks?
Understanding the consequences of violence in early childhood, and, above all, protecting the development of children who grow up in contexts of violence inspired Seeds of Bonding to be created by Andrés Moya from the Faculty of Economics and Arturo Harker from the Alberto Lleras Camargo School of Government, which are both part of the Universidad de los Andes.
“This is a psychosocial accompaniment program. Over 15 weeks, we work with mothers, fathers, and main carers to promote their mental health, and, as such, they construct stronger emotional ties with their children”, explains researcher Andrés Moya. He adds that currently in the country there are more than eight million victims, including five-hundred thousand children between zero and 5 years old.
They began with a pilot project in Bogotá in 2015, and in 2018 they implemented the first phase in San Andrés de Tumaco (better-known as Tumaco), which is a municipality on the Colombian pacific coast that is blessed with biodiversity and has an enormous natural wealth bathed by the sea. This is a paradise that, sadly, directly contrasts with the clashes between armed groups and criminal gangs that are fighting for territorial control.
Twenty-three-year-old Claritza has lived in the midst of this turbulence. She cannot hide the terror and worry behind her smile that makes her think about the future of her three small children: seven-year-old Jeison, three-year-old Juan Carlos, and two-year-old Milagros as the data reported by the researchers is disturbing: more than two hundred murders in 2018, one of the highest rates in the country. To top it all, it is the region with the greatest area of illegal coca cultivations in the country.
According to the experts at Los Andes, exposure to violence during early childhood truncates children’s cognitive and sociocultural development as they can suffer negative effects in their mental health, including psychological trauma, complex stress, post-traumatic stress disorder, major depression, and chronic anxiety, which can last throughout their lives.
“The first years are when the brain begins to take shape, this is called the cerebral architecture, clarifies professor Arturo Harker. This is an extremely productive moment in terms of cognitive and socio-emotional abilities: these are the foundations for a person to reach their maximum potential”.
To mitigate the adverse effects of mistreatment, professors at the Universidad de los Andes, together with the Child Trauma Research Program (CTRP) at the University of California, San Francisco, designed a curriculum based on Child Parent Psychotherapy (CPP). This is an intervention model for children between zero and five years-old and was implemented in the U.S.A. with predominantly Latino and Afro-American families that have been exposed to domestic violence, migration, and high levels of depression. It has had positive impacts on the mental health of mothers, on emotional bonding, and mental health as well as the development of their children.
This curriculum, which is adapted to the local context, allows rigorous long-term evaluation to be carried out for which information is being collected from the beginning of the intervention; then there are follow-ups at one and eight months regarding the mental health of the mother and child, the quality of their emotional bond, parenting practices, and the child’s cognitive and socio-emotional development.
In this context, Seeds of Bonding has begun to win over the trust of the people from Tumaco.
Mothers and fathers like Claritza share their life experiences in the workshops that are supported by a psychologist. “They do breathing exercises, full awareness, and manual activities to be able to reflect through these practices”, said Josefina Ortiz, the program facilitator.
2014: the program was born out of an alliance between the Center for Studies on Economic Development at the Universidad de los Andes and the Child Trauma Research Program (CTRP) at the University of California, San Francisco.
2015-2016: a pilot program was carried out in Bogota that was financed by the Ministry of Health and Social Protection and the Inter-American Development Bank.
2017: there was a new alliance between the Universidad de los Andes, the Genesis Foundation, and Fundación Éxito.
2018: the implementation and evaluation of the project took place in Tumaco.
- New alliances joined the program: the FEMSA Foundation, The Coca-Cola Company, and the Primero lo Primero collective (made up of the following foundations: Mario Santo Domingo, Carulla AeioTu, Pies Descalzos, Dividendo por Colombia, and Genesis Foundation).
- The projects received the Saving Brains research grant from Grand Challenges Canada.
“I sat with my mother and sister and told them the new ways that I am educating my daughter. They laughed because, for them, this is not education, but they were surprised when she had a tantrum and my reaction was to ask her what was wrong instead of shouting like before.
* The testimonies are anonymous to protect the program participants