"War does not cancel childhood." How to support children and adolescents: advice from psychologists, experts of the National Hotline for Children and Youth of the Public Organization "La Strada-Ukraine"

"War does not cancel childhood." How to support children and adolescents: advice from psychologists, experts of the National Hotline for Children and Youth of the Public Organization "La Strada-Ukraine"

War is an extremely traumatic event. And for us adults, it is difficult to remain psychologically stable in conditions of danger, terrible news and "emotional swings". And it is much more difficult for children and teenagers: their psyche has not yet formed protective mechanisms, as in an adult, and the impact of war is experienced more painfully.

How to support children and help them maintain mental health during war? Experts from the public organization "La Strada-Ukraine" share their experience and advice: Alyona Kryvulyak, Coordinator of the National Hotline for Children and Youth, y Olga Zinchenko, psychotherapist, communication manager.

Children and teenagers go through a difficult test of war

Alyona: With the beginning of the full-scale invasion of the Russian army, our National Hotline for Children and Youth has seen an increase in calls from children and teenagers who resort to self-harm and have obsessive thoughts about suicide. And even those teenagers who have already tried to commit suicide because they cannot cope with the pressure of problems. We have cases where children whose parents died in the war applied for support. And even cases when it happened before their eyes.

Ukrainian children and teenagers are forced to live with terrible thoughts. For example, you can hear from them that a quick death by suicide is better than a life with mutilation after a missile attack. 

Many children whose parents evacuated them abroad still find it difficult to adapt. They are safe, but they feel lonely, because they are "torn" from their home, family and friends. 

Children from temporarily occupied territories turn to us. They say that they are witnessing the crimes of the occupiers. And it hurts us a lot when appeals from territories temporarily not under the control of Ukraine decrease - because it is clear that the problems are only compounded. However, the occupiers are doing everything to destroy the means of communication with Ukraine. 

We are also contacted by children whose parents evacuated them to safe territories with their relatives, but who remained in the war zone or temporary occupation. Lack of communication, worry about parents - will they survive? - traumatizes children even more than war itself. There is so much pain in these appeals that we ask adults again and again to choose the latter between their native home and the child's psyche.

The majority of Ukrainian men and women, especially young ones, are more or less traumatized by the war. However: about 80% of us will be able to cope and survive these dark times without critical damage to our psyche. Most of our children have every chance to get the future they deserve. Protection and support of a child is the duty and responsibility of adults. 

Even those Ukrainian children who did not see enemy equipment, destruction and death felt the impact of the war. Even if the parents evacuated them in advance to a relatively safe territory of Ukraine or abroad. Even if children have never heard live sirens. They listen to what adults are talking about, read and watch the news. And although the war in Ukraine continues for the ninth year, many children who were born after 2014 or were small at that time experienced it personally on February 24, 2022. 

Many children were unable to adapt to the "covid" transformations, were not used to productive online learning and lost social connections. And the war forced them to get used to a new reality, where there are so many terrible events.

Studying and communicating with peers is now even more difficult. Not only because the sense of basic security and trust is broken. And also because friends, girlfriends and classmates were scattered around the world, and not everyone can be in touch even online, because many children are still in the zone of active hostilities or temporary occupation.

Olga: The basic sense of security is violated in the majority of Ukrainian men and women. Since the first days of the war, children and teenagers who are very scared have been contacting us. They live with constant anxiety. Many appeals are related to panic attacks, depressive states, and mental disorders. In the vast majority, this is the area of competence of psychiatrists. Therefore, during consultations of children and their parents, we often emphasize to turn to these specialists as well.

Remember that the war does not "write off" the "pre-war" pain of children

Olga: The war only exacerbates the problems that children are already experiencing. For example, one of the most popular appeals of teenagers is self-harm, alcohol and drug addiction are the consequences of traumatic events. First of all - domestic violence, bullying at school, loneliness, misunderstandings with peers, lack of support from relatives, etc.  

During the war, the focus of adults shifted to survival. This is the first reaction to danger, and it is the right one. However, when the basic need for security is closed, all problems not only remind themselves, but are exacerbated by the stress of war.

Alyona: Adolescence is a period of crisis. And in peacetime it is extremely difficult. Adolescents face many problems - self-rejection, inability to find their place in the world and lack of understanding of their future. The war became the catalyst that deepened these problems even more - because it is even more difficult to imagine what will happen tomorrow. 

For example, before the full-scale war, our National Child and Youth Helpline was frequently contacted by teenagers experiencing self-harm. That is, they harmed themselves in order to feel temporary emotional relief. Usually, for this, they use a blade or other sharp objects, smash their fists, hit themselves on the head, etc. Many children, in order to cope with this, worked with specialists - psychologists, psychiatrists, and achieved success. However, due to the full-scale invasion of Russia into Ukraine, there was a regression. Psychological needs took a back seat, because many families had to evacuate and survive under shelling. Unfortunately, because of the war, children once again resort to familiar methods of coping with stress and aggression - they hurt themselves. 

Of course, this only exacerbates internal problems. And it is clear that adults, due to the full-scale war, also have more trouble to provide at least the basic needs of children. However, taking care of the psychological state in the conditions of war is also extremely important.  

Accept different emotions of children 

Alyona: Fear, sadness, despair - in general, any emotional reaction to the war of both adults and children is normal. Tears, aggression, anxiety, panic, desire for isolation are protective mechanisms of the psyche in a situation for which life did not prepare us.   

Children themselves often do not understand their condition, and therefore are unable to control their feelings. 

For example, a child may be angry because his parents took him out of the house to keep him safe, because he misses his friends. Or vice versa - that the parents do not want to leave the dangerous zone, and the child is forced to live in fear. Often, children are annoyed because they want to return to their usual life, so that everything will be as it was before - and it is extremely difficult for them to accept that this is impossible. They really perceive it as a tragedy and it hurts. 

Olga: It is very important not to worsen the already difficult emotional state of children. For example, one should not devalue and ridicule their problems if they seem to adults to be unworthy of attention or out of time. If you notice a problem (for example, signs of self-harm), in no case should you scold, shame, or blame the child. She needs help.

Talk to children about war 

Alyona: Often, adults do not explain to children and adolescents what is happening in order to protect them and not to injure them additionally. However, unfortunately, it is impossible to isolate children. They still understand from an early age that something bad is happening, even if they don't see the war outside their window. And teenagers have access to the Internet and exchange information with each other and with each other. At the same time, teenagers do not yet have developed critical thinking skills and do not always choose trustworthy sources. Ideally, parents are the main source of information. 

For example, children of preschool and primary school age can be told about the war in a fairy-tale format - as a story about the fight against the forces of evil, in which good will surely win. 

Teenagers understand much more. They think not only about the war, but also about their national identity, the history of the Ukrainian struggle for freedom. Communicate on these topics. Be as frank as possible. Listen to their opinion. Look for answers together in reliable sources of information. Study together - it will only strengthen your bond. 

If the child asks you any questions, it is good. Support her. Of course, you don't know all the answers - for example, no one knows when the war will end. Not everyone knows when they will return from evacuation to their hometowns. Share the child's emotions. Answer calmly and sincerely: "I don't know. Truth. However, I understand you and I really want it too. I think I feel something similar. But I am constantly monitoring the situation. I promise you: as soon as it is safe at home, I will immediately offer you to pack your bags." 

Olga: It may seem to adults that children experience the war more easily, because they are less aware of it. But this is a devaluation of children's problems. It is more difficult for them, in particular, because they have not yet learned to manage their emotions. Feelings overwhelm children, even small ones. They may develop an inner sense of capacity that can no longer contain more sadness and fear. A stable and aware adult can become a "container" from the outside - through support and care, share the burden of complex emotions with the child, make it easier, make room for new experiences, including positive ones. 

At the same time, it is worth knowingly choosing the form of presenting information that corresponds to the age of the children. Not to hide the truth, but to give a sense of security and not to traumatize even more. For example, among our appeals there is a case when parents read to a girl terrible news about the occupiers' abuse of peaceful Ukrainian men and women, and then added: "You are lucky that you are safe." This is a bad example of communicating with children about war - the child should know that his right to safety is indisputable.  

Take care of yourself 

Olga: It is typical for parents not to pay attention to their own needs when it is necessary to take care of children. However, it is important to listen to the signals of your body, take care of your mental health - in particular, for the sake of the children. An adult can also run out of resources. But in the "unassembled" state, we are not able to become a support for the child. And this is no less important than food and a roof over their heads - children have already lost too many supports (for example, friends and family home) because of the war. I really want the family to be an island of safety for children.  

If an adult understands that at a certain moment he cannot support the child because he needs help himself, such support for the child should be found from outside. For example, in the family, therapeutic and psychological groups for children and adolescents.

Alyona: The condition of the child depends, in particular, on the adults who take care of it. Therefore, it is also the responsibility of adults to take care of their psychological state. True, the "oxygen mask" should be put on yourself first.

Watch your resource. Form a circle of communication that helps you stay in a stable state. If you feel that your resources are lacking, contact psychologists, because this is not only your personal issue, but also your child's well-being. 

It is important not to change places with children. Mutual support in the family is wonderful. Adults also have the right to show different emotions. However, it is adults who should protect and reassure children, not the other way around.

Seek the support of specialists 

Alyona: It is important that the ongoing war in Ukraine does not lead to a war in your family - that you and your child do not stop understanding each other and each other. 

Pay attention to the "alarm bells". Although any reaction to war is normal - if a certain condition has been going on for a long time, perhaps the child needs the help of a specialist. For example, it's okay if a child doesn't want to communicate with parents and peers for a certain time, you just have to be there. However, if the child cannot adapt at all, does not leave the room and has been immersed in himself for many weeks - do not ignore it. 

Olga: There are obvious signs that the child needs help - for example, signs of self-harm and suicidal intentions. And there are less obvious ones - to notice them, you should be as attentive as possible to the child's condition. For example, changes in appetite, sleep patterns, loss of interest in communication and hobbies. For some time, such reactions are normal - because children also react differently to stress and adapt to new conditions. However, if it lasts a long time, it may indicate depression, which should be diagnosed and treated by a psychiatrist.  

Alyona: During the war, both children and adults experience various difficult states and emotions. Even if you have not seen the terrible pictures of war with your own eyes. If this is the case, both you and the child should contact a specialist. This will provide support and help you find the strength to cope with your experiences. A psychologist will help you understand how to adapt to a new situation and accept changes, how to support yourself and your child when needed. Ukrainian men and women have many opportunities to receive psychological help in Ukraine and abroad, offline and online, including free of charge. Believe me, it's always on time.

Olga: It is especially unfortunate to hear from children and teenagers who contact our National Helpline for Children and Young People that they feel the need to consult a psychologist/psychologist or a psychiatrist/psychiatrist - but the parents are against it. They underestimate the problem or do not want to seek help because of myths about "punitive psychiatry", which has nothing to do with reality. 

For example, many psychiatrists in Ukraine now give free consultations, including online. We suggest contacting them when we understand that a child has signs of depression and probably needs medical treatment. According to Ukrainian legislation, a child under the age of 14, without the consent of his parents, cannot seek advice and buy the necessary medicines, and therefore is deprived of help and forced to cope on his own. At such moments, I personally feel powerless, because it is impossible to reach my parents due to the lack of direct communication with them. 

Be there physically and emotionally 

Alyona: Do not leave children with their experiences face to face. They have not yet learned to help themselves. 

War does not cancel childhood. We have to provide children with this right - to play, to make mistakes, to be idle, and to be happy. 

If the child has an opportunity to cope with stress in a safe way - use it. Support children's desire to participate in any activities with their peers - from clubs that work in Ukraine to camps for Ukrainian immigrants abroad.  

Help children adapt. If possible, bring back into the child's life things that he likes - for example, rituals (lullaby, fairy tale, joint hobby). And things that will help to feel the connection with home and ordinary life. 

It's difficult to make long-term plans right now - however, planning helps to regain a sense of control. Therefore, it makes sense to make a list of things for the day or for the weekend.

It is great if there is a lot of tactility in your relationship with children - during difficult periods, they especially need to be hugged, stroked, held or held.

Tell children that you love them, are ready to protect them, care about their safety. That you are happy to be their parents. How do you understand the child's feelings - sadness, despair, fear. Ask how things are going, how the child is feeling - you can ask several times a day. Please contact with any questions. Say that you will help find ways to deal with any problem. Calmly, but sincerely, talk about your own emotions - this makes the child understand that his reactions are also normal, creates trust and encourages sharing with each other. 

Olga: Children need respect, attention and understanding. It is very sad to hear from children who contact our National Hotline for Children and Youth that they are hearing elementary words of support and praise for the first time in their lives. I would like to appeal to parents again and again: please listen, listen, support the children. They need it - both during the war and always. 

The psyche of children is more vulnerable than that of adults, and at the same time it is adaptive. Even when a traumatic event occurs, if help and support are provided in time, the risks of harm are greatly reduced (eg post-traumatic stress disorder and other disorders). Protect children, take care of children, consult specialists if necessary: your love is very important and often enough, however, you may also need qualified help - for the sake of the future - of you and your children.

I prepared the article
Kateryna Majevska