A Healing Hug from Israel to Japan

September 27, 2011

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When 7-year-old Dan’s mom asked him why his Hibuki (“huggy”) doll was sad, he replied, “There are rockets outside his house. He’s scared.” Dan was actually describing Hamas firing outside his bedroom window night after night. But having befriended the sad-faced Hibuki doll JDC had given him a year before, he was able to transfer his feelings, take care of the stuffed animal, and learn to deal with his fear and trauma. With the escalation in missile attacks, Dan decided to give his precious Hibuki to his younger three-year-old sister as a gift “so that it will protect her and she won’t be afraid.”

JDC’s Hibuki program helps preschool and kindergarten children overcome fears and trauma by making them caretakers of plush Hibuki puppy dolls whose long arms can hug a child and be hugged back, giving them the opportunity to articulate the comforting words they themselves might need to hear and restoring their sense of control.

Through hands-on training, the program also empowers parents and teachers to help kids under their supervision cope with emotional distress detect trauma and to effectively coach children in caring for the dolls.

Hibuki was devised and implemented during the Second Lebanon War, when educational professionals cited the possibility of long-term developmental difficulties in children exposed to war and sought an intervention to help Southern Israel’s youngest citizens effectively process their situation with rocket attacks from Gaza. Since then, Hibuki has continuously been called upon to help children cope with trauma.

“When the child is looking after the doll, he is basically looking after his trauma,” says clinical psychologist Dr. Shai Chen-Gal, who oversaw the Hibuki project for JDC in Carmel, following the devastating fires there last year.

The Hibuki treatment method was developed by JDC, the Israeli Ministry of Education-Psychological Counseling Service, and the Department of Psychology at Tel Aviv University. To date, 50,000 Israeli children have been treated using this method and Tel Aviv University professor Avi Sadeh, in a study on the program, has noted the high rates of reduction in post-traumatic responses and distress in children.

Now Hibuki is making his first trip overseas, to Japan, where JDC’s Dr. Flora Mor and Dr. Shai Hen-Gal have visited tsunami-affected regions and trained Japanese teachers, nurses, and other professionals to use the puppy doll to “hug” children and talk through their worries.

“Yuriko,” a Japanese mother struggling to help her child overcome fears about another tsunami like the one that hit the island in March, is hoping her child will express her feelings to the doll in a way she cannot seem to express herself to adults.

“Our work in Israel and in places like Haiti and South Asia has demonstrated that treating trauma, especially in children affected by war or natural disaster, is a vital step towards recovery,” said Judy Amit, Global Director of JDC’s international development program and a clinical psychologist. “By utilizing Japan’s history of doll-play and by helping our Japanese partners tweak the Hibuki program to mesh with local cultural norms, we are working together to ensure that children here find solace in the wake of tragedy.”

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