April 16, 2024

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Children and war – what psychologists talk about

For the second year, a full-scale war has been going on in Ukraine, and the most affected by it are children. Even after receiving temporary protection in Europe, many still cannot return to their normal state. What can we say about those who continue to hear the howl of sirens and the roar of explosions. How to help your child? What to pay attention to?

Talking about their activities, Ukrainian psychologists say: “Sometimes success is when the child starts talking again.” Child psychologists working with war traumas have a lot of work now – they are trying to return children to normal, who hear air raid alarms or explosions in every rustle.

Listen to their stories, maybe you will find something useful for yourself, to help your child. After all, it is not always possible to turn to a professional psychologist. This is especially difficult abroad, where the notorious language barrier prevents full-fledged treatment.

Olga Fedorets is a psychologist and psychotherapist, an expert at NaUKMA, who works with the Voices of Children charity foundation. She says:

“My first experience of working with children during the war was at a volunteer center in 2014. Every week, about 200 children from Slavyansk and Kramatorsk passed through the nursery, which we made together with other psychologists. The children were “on wheels”, they came to rest while parents decide their future path.

Then I saw how much despair adults have, and how little they know what to do. And I also felt that every child still relies more on their close adult than on me – no matter how cool I am. Therefore, after 2014, I tried not to start working with the child immediately from the meeting with him in my office. She asked parents or those to whom the child has affection to come first. This gave better results than when I had to build a new relationship with a child. This way you can support more children.

Already in November 2014, we started working with school psychologists. They were in despair. The child in a safe place didn’t want to go into the classroom because the windows were too big and were not lined with anything. Or from loud sounds, the children instantly hid under the desk. Or they didn’t want to go to school because it seemed unreliable. These were normal manifestations of children’s adaptation to places where war continues, but are unacceptable where it does not exist.

We talked with teachers about how to support a child and build trust. How to be an adult, how to behave correctly if a child is frightened in class. What to do when bored or grieving. What surprises me about children who have experienced war? Ready to recover. Quickly, like ivy, look for support. This power is fantastic.”

Methodist-expert Ruslana Moroz says:

“During the war, I met many children who had their childhood taken away. They learned too early about the terrible: death, rape, bloody bodies. If they were witnesses or participants in such events, this is for life. But children learn to live with it and can be happy.

Since 2014, I have worked a lot not only with children, but also with IDP families, because the child depends on the psychological state of the parents. Mom gives resistance and a sense of security, hope, faith in yourself and the future. This is the basis for a child with the slightest traumatic consequences to survive stress. If the mother is steadfast, understands her condition and knows what to do with it, it is easier for the child to cope with the traumatic experience.

I remember my mother brought a girl with tics to me. The face moved, the child could not control it, but the mother forced him to pull himself together. We worked with the girl in various ways and at the same time talked with her mother so that she would accept this symptom and not notice it. But one session was key in the course of our work. It turned out that in the girl’s family everyone had different political views. Some of the relatives left for the west of Ukraine, some went to the Crimea, some went over to the side of the occupiers. The girl had a serious internal conflict, which she was not aware of. After she accepted that this is still her family, and she cannot help but love her relatives, the symptoms decreased.”

Certified trauma therapist and psychologist Elena Ivanova works with children aged 5-8. She says:

“Our task is to return to the child a sense of security, the ability to joke, laugh, play. When we arrive, the children tell how they hid, how their cow was killed, and they saved the calf and fed it. And it seems that these are stories about life, but there are so many behind them pain!

We have conversations, drawing, and breathing techniques in our classes. We give children the opportunity to cry, yell, stomp their feet. The child says: “I was shaking,” and I say: “Show me how? What does it look like? Like a dog that just bathed? Like a bird flapping its wings?” Then laughter appears, and we become warmer: children become more lively, play, smile.

What are these other children? They have adult thoughts and views. During the occupation, they helped their parents and took care of the younger ones in shelters. But on the other hand, they have regressive behavioral traits: nine-year-olds can play with their favorite toys, like five-year-olds. I have to be persistent so that the children can talk to me on any topic. But now is the time that I myself feel the same as they do. I live in the same country, I read the same news and I am in danger.

I would like to believe that our help allows children to cope, gives new skills and resources. We cannot change what happened. But we can teach you to look at the experience gained differently. And help to understand that whatever the child feels is normal in this abnormal situation.

Lyudmila Romanenko, analyst, psychologist, trainer-consultant of the NaUKMA Center for Psychosocial Rehabilitation about the “children of war”:

“What are children afraid of when they see the war? Something that should not cause fear. For example, a family moves to a village, to a safe place, and the child cannot leave the house. Sensitivity to all irritants grows, and there is no resource to cope with even the slightest stress. Injuries as a result of the war in people are now the same as in 2014, but more acute.

When the war started in 2014, I was still on maternity leave. We lived in Zolote (Luhansk region), four kilometers from the demarcation line. In October, as soon as the schools began to work, I realized that I could not sit and listen to the shots, so I went to work as a school psychologist. The students were already beginning to have fears, insomnia, enuresis (involuntary urination), and we did not know what to do. The teachers asked how to behave when during shelling you hide with your children on the first floor under the stairs. There was no basement. And I didn’t have the necessary knowledge, so I started studying crisis counseling.

In 2014-2015, we had several cases when children fell silent, and after a series of sessions with a psychologist, they started talking again. Adults perceived it as a miracle. Among other things, I used the “serial drawing” technique. You offer the child paints, sit down next to him. No instructions or topics required. Somewhere after 5-6 sessions, according to the drawings and reactions, it becomes noticeable how something is changing. It is absolutely not necessary to understand WHAT the child draws, it is important to be a container for his feelings and emotions. And the drawing itself fulfills this role.

This and other techniques (for example, working with sand) include adaptation mechanisms within the child, his resources, and therefore relief. But in parallel, of course, I worked with parents so that they understood the child’s condition and knew how they could help.

February 24, 2022 I was at home. When clients and colleagues a month before talked about the war and the need to leave, I did not believe it. So we had to get together in two hours. Night found us in Poltava. We stayed there for the next three months.

Already on February 27, I started work: I went to the hostels where the migrants lived. The first to join were those who had experience during the war. People came to us with fears, panic states. There were several very severe cases among children from our region, who did not leave immediately and were injured again.

In June, the NaUKMA Psychosocial Rehabilitation Center, where I worked in Gorny, was moved to Bucha. Colleagues immediately said that Bucha is not easy, but most likely we will be able to withstand it. I moved to work here throughout the district: Vorzel, Irpen, Bucha, Gostomel. I try to work with the most difficult topics in the morning, because it is difficult, and my working day is up to nine. Children here are more shy, and after the slightest rustle they ask: “Is this an air raid alert?”

Evgeny Gerasimov, Gestalt therapist*, on childhood aggression, depression and bad habits:

“Now many more people turn to psychologists, their requests are different, the cases are more acute. Many children and adolescents come with aggression that needs to be thrown out somewhere. which helps them vent their aggression.

My work after February 24 has changed dramatically, because my life has changed dramatically: now we, like our clients, internally displaced people, have also lost their supports and ways of recovery. The greatest support in peacetime for me was my wife and son, we lived near the Dnieper, went fishing. And now the family is abroad, I am in Lviv, the Dnieper is not here. Now my support is colleagues, supervisions and individual therapy.

When a new group of children gathers, I usually see glass eyes: someone is on the phone, someone is silent, someone answers only “yes / no / don’t know.” These children have a lot of fear: “Our house is intact?”, “Will we return home?”, “See friends?”, “How to continue to live?”. Everything has changed in their life: sections, friends, school. Instead of having a hobby, they sit at home on Youtube. Friends? They stayed there: in Kherson/Kharkov/Lysichansk.

These children are in a stressful situation, waiting that the war is about to end and they will return home. They shut themselves up, they don’t want anything. Someone stops sleeping, someone changes their lifestyle, bad habits, aggression appear. But several meetings take place, and these children begin to interact, talk, go somewhere, study better, talk and walk with their parents. And you understand: wow, something has changed.

In each case, the result of my work is different: sometimes success is when the child began to talk again, or when the child with autism began to interact with me for at least five minutes. Of course, it can be difficult. Sometimes you can do two group sessions and three individual sessions in one day. Sometimes – you work with one child and you feel as if you worked for a month without a day off.

Did I have a vacation after February 24th? No. I calculated that in May I worked with about three hundred children (and before the war I had 11 clients a week). It’s inspiring. Now I have holidays, but not often. On Sundays I work with my previous clients online or have other work meetings. Rest after victory.

Child psychologist Marianna Novakovskaya notes that when talking with children, it is very important to give them a sense of security. Children must be sure that they will receive an answer from adults. It is important not to be distracted, not to say “calm down”, but to give a truthful answer in accordance with age.

“From the age of four or five, children can come with questions about war, violence. For children of this age, it is important to give information briefly. Answer exactly the question that the child asks. Do not raise aspects that the child does not ask about. Children of younger adolescence should also give an answer to exactly the question posed. But you need to be prepared that children of younger adolescence and adolescents may have their own point of view and will want to share it. It is imperative to give them the opportunity to do so.”

The psychologist explains that the death of a loved one is a huge trauma for a child. In such circumstances, it is important that someone more or less stable stay with him. It is thanks to this person that the child can feel that his world has not completely collapsed. It is necessary to grieve, cry, allow and not stop these manifestations, remember, speak as much as he needs. And lots and lots of hugs…

*What is the difference between a psychologist and a Gestalt therapist? In simple terms, a Gestalt therapist is a psychologist who works in the Gestalt approach. Gestalt therapy differs from other approaches in that there is more direct contact and “I-you” dialogue between the Gestalt therapist and the client.

Photographer Oleksandr Kuchinsky captured on video children in the center of the Ukrainian capital heading for shelter after the alarm began. In the footage, you can see how the sounds of explosions catch them on the way to the shelter, and the children start to run faster in a panic. It’s May 29, 2023…



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