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Moving with children from Ukraine. Kiev psychologist Yana Fruktova tells how to survive the trauma of war


Many children who have left Ukraine have not only found themselves in a new country, but have also experienced traumatic events: leaving without warning, witnessing shelling, and maybe even losing a loved one.

Yana Fruktova, psychologist and D. in Pedagogy from Kiev, tells us how to help a child survive a trauma.

A child, who has not only travelled to another country, but has also witnessed shelling, burning cars or God forbid, dead people, needs psychological rehabilitation, which parents cannot often  guarantee.

Moreover, the parents themselves are traumatised, they are living through an acute form of grief. It is very difficult to help another when you are personally exhausted. If the loss of a loved one has occurred, psychotherapy with a professional who specialises in grievance counselling is definitely needed.

Oleksandra, who left Ukraine for Germany with her 12-year-old son, 18-year-old daughter and 19-year-old daughter's friend:

"Even before the war started, I noticed that my anxiety was very disturbing for the children: more so  than awareness of the war. My husband and I tried  to keep everything to ourselves, to whisper, to prepare in silence. When the fighting started, for a while we were still on an adrenaline rush , but then we just "fell apart".

It was very difficult to apply the mantra "First put the oxygen mask on yourself, then on the child". It's one thing to know it's necessary, it's another to go against parental instincts. To enable yourself to be able to help children.

What can parents do?

According to  their age, explain to the child in their own language what is going on. That is, "the bad uncle has decided to go to war" or "the dictator of another country is interested in expanding his territory".

Establish contact with their daddy. Introduce rituals and traditions when - if possible at the same time - there will be a message or video calls. So that the child understands that they are not forgotten, not abandoned and that the other parent loves them, misses them and is part of their life.

Two-year-old Bogdan says goodbye to his daddy at the border
Photo: AP

Katerina, left Ukraine for Greece with a 2.5 month old son and a 5 year old daughter:

"The main reason for my daughter's tears remains the separation from her dad and anxiety about family and friends.

When the children in kindergarten wrote a letter to St Vasilius on New Year's Day, most asked for a bicycle or a Barbie house, Melissa asked to see her daddy and for the war to be over.

Six months after the evacuation we were sitting together and I said: "What a beautiful sunset." And my daughter replied, "No, Mama, it reminds me of the red sky from the explosions on the day the war began. Those moments make it very painful".

Here and now. Focus on the positives of the current situation: what is good about this space, the new place to live? The key is to be in the moment, not in the future or the past. "Look, we have light. We have food. What would you like me to make you some yummy food? Look at the new toys you have. Which playground are we going to today? Who would you like to see today, what would you like to do?".

Talk about your daily plans. This relieves tension and prevents a conflict of expectations: "We need to buy groceries for lunch, so I suggest we go to the shop" or "We need to do paperwork, so today we will go to an organisation that will help us with that".

Positive reinforcement. Build confidence in the world, in people and in your own strength. For example: "Look how many people are helping us, how friendly our neighbours are, we have housing and everything we need  thanks to the kindness of the citizens of this country."

Physical contact and warmth. We need  physical sensations because they give signals to the brain about our well being, our reality, our boundaries and their violation. Hugs, different types of massage, sports, for example, can be psychotherapeutic.

Physical connection with the real world provides  us with  a symbolic attachment to the earth. You can walk barefoot on different textures - on the floor, on grass, on stones. You can also lie with your back on the grass or on the floor at home. If you have some pebbles from the beach or wooden sticks or dice, you can put them under different parts of the body. You can lie on a carpet, on massage rollers - as many different textures as possible.

A very important thing that is often underestimated is warmth. Because being cold is a cause of stress.

That is, you need warm clothes, some funny warm socks with unicorns, hats, mittens and warm drinks. Warm the flat, don't save on electricity, you can't sit shivering with muscle cramps . It is better to spend the money so as not to form phobias - the body's reactions to constant stress, from which it will be very difficult to overcome later. A warm bath, not a shower. You can buy basins and put the kids in them. In other words, you must think of anything which helps to  keep the children warm not only figuratively, but literally as well.

Ukrainian refugees on their way to Warsaw
Photo: AP

The children should be given the opportunity to express their emotional pain. This can be through sand therapy, art therapy, for example expressing fears or emotions with pencil and paper - such as anger, frustration, hatred; some poems about war that resonate with their perception, shouting, drumming, vocal studio, wrestling studio.

Our goal is to build the child's external support (a significant parent) and internal support - that's when "I feel strong".

This is likely to be some kind of sport, rock songs - anything that the child associates with strength.

Perhaps the child needs to buy toys that he/she perceives as a form of protection. A sword, a baton, a hero like Superman... An object that will boost self confidence. That is, "as long as this sword is with me, nothing bad will happen".

A very important point: no re-traumatisation or helplessness should be allowed.

By remembering experiences, adults receive a secondary benefit, i.e. attention and sympathy from others. In order to receive this sympathy, people can consciously or unconsciously focus on negativity . Saying, "Look how poor and miserable we are, how unlucky we are, we had everything and it was taken away from us. This can have a negative effect on the child, so such talk in front of the child is unacceptable. We are trying to find support, not disintegration . To heal the wounds, not to increase their area and depth.

Economically, psychologically and socially it is too profitable to constantly remind yourself of the difficulties you have gone through. But to keep children from relapsing into trauma, the recommendation is to discuss these moments with adults.

Don’t exclude children from the conversation, so that they don't have the anxiety that they have been left out. That is, don't discuss it in the next room or distract children with cartoons. They will still hear the traumatic words and remember the traumatic events. If you can, just go to some clubs or cafes where there are no children and have such discussions there.

The child will talk about the traumatic events on their own when they feel ready. The main thing is not to miss the opportunity, but to start untangling their tangled emotions. When the child starts to talk and talk about what he/she has seen, it may be about dreams they had  about the war, or by drawing.

Let the child talk  as much as possible to release this tension. But if the child avoids talking about traumatic events, it is urgent that they see a specialist.

Ukrainian children on the Lviv-Warsaw train
Photo: AP

Yulia, who left Ukraine for Germany with her 4-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter:

"We were travelling at the height of the war. It was 1 March, we had been travelling for six days. We took an evacuation train from Dnipro, 12 people in a compartment. I witnessed all kinds of things. Emotionally and psychologically it was just as difficult as it was physically.

We saw infants and old people in a hall all mixed up with animals, with the  added smell of cigarettes. So it was just like a  scene from  the Second World War.

Because there were so many people everywhere (train stations, buses, volunteer sleepovers), there was the constant fear of losing children. There were many such stories when someone turned away for a second and that was it, the child was gone. I made tags for the children straight away, with the names of my contacts but the fear was there all the same.

The hardest thing for the children was leaving. They didn't understand why their dad and grandma weren't coming with us. My son could no longer see his friends or play with his toys: we moved into a completely empty flat. Against this backdrop, my son had a nervous breakdown. He had problems with his bowels: that was how he expressed the stress he was experiencing. He didn't go to the toilet for six days on the road, and then it turned into psychological constipation. I didn't know what to do about it, except just be patient and love him.

Then came the second phase: he chewed his nails a lot, was restless, screamed at night, was nervous and hysterical, would start running away from me out of the blue. I didn't know how to deal with it. I couldn't help him because I was at an emotional low point myself. I couldn't  take it all in.

When I talk about it now, I don't know how I didn't lose my mind. Because I was also constantly reading the news and waiting for relatives to write back, to inform me that they were still alive.

I was just living on automatic. I had goals: to feed the children, to eat and sleep. I tried to simply love, hug and kiss the children.

My son started to get over it when we went to Lviv in July to meet my husband and the children's grandmothers. When he saw that there is  normal life in Ukraine, daddy is there, grandmothers are there, he started to come back to normal a little.

My son is very sensitive, he is overwhelmed by his feelings. He is affected by our change in circumstances. My daughter, of course, was trying to get  used to the new school, but on the whole she took it all quite calmly.

Now we are no longer expecting to return quickly. And it gave us a foundation to understand that we should continue living here and now. The children have their own life - school and kindergarten - which also helps a lot. My son didn't get a place in kindergarten for nine months. So leading up to that time, when I had to travel to do all the bureaucratic stuff, I took him with me. Because of that, he was not able to develop in the way that he used to. Now it was becoming clear what i should do if I needed this or that, I took German courses and started seeing people. When things got better,  psychologically it became much easier - for me and the children."

One of the functions of the family, along with social, economic and other functions, is psychotherapeutic. This function, in my opinion, is often underestimated. But at critical moments, it is what allows family members to cope with stress and get through difficult moments.

The support of every family member is important. Children can  heal the trauma of adults and vice versa.

Remember that you are not alone and that social, educational and psychological professionals are always there to help you. The most important thing is that you don't hesitate to ask for help and to receive it with gratitude - and teach your children to do the same.

By: Anna Rosch

Cover photo: UNICEF

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