Supporting children at wartime: Tips from a psychologist

What to say to your daughter when she asks difficult questions about the war? How to comfort your son when you find him in the grip of a nightmare?

We have adjusted our work on supporting pre-school education in Ukraine (part of our Schools for Democracy program) to the harsh realities of the ongoing war. This summer, as an emergency response, we prepared a series of videos to guide adults through supporting children at wartime. Recorded in Ukrainian by our expert Inna Horbenko, a professional psychologist, the series is freely available on YouTube.

Its four parts deal with four larger themes:

How to explain to a child what happens during the war?

How to support a child whose family was forced to leave home?

How to help a child fall asleep? What to do when a child had a nightmare?

What to do when the child’s games have become more aggressive?

Inna, who spent some time as an IDP herself, identified these four themes when she returned to Kyiv and went back to working with parents and colleagues. Every day gives her a first-hand perspective on what the children – as well as the adults – are dealing with.

“We are constantly monitoring the situation in Ukraine, looking for possibilities of helping and supporting school and pre-school teachers,” explains EWC Advisor Marta Melnykevych-Chorna. “So, we came up with this idea for advice videos that would be relevant not only for teachers, but also for parents and caregivers, siblings and neighbors – basically, any adult who is around children at wartime. To be honest, I find some of these tips very useful with my 2-year-old here in Norway.”

Many people have difficulty explaining to young children what is happening in Ukraine. But the children can see our apprehensive faces; they hear air raid sirens and watch houses burn. It is important not to avoid talking about this, because silence only serves to increase their anxiety, explains Inna.

Part 1 of the video series is based on several pieces of advice about handling the challenging conversation from the very start. Suggestions include being open to discussing the topic of war, but choosing words that are understandable to a child. An important rule is put forth: we tell the truth and do not make promises that we cannot keep.

For example, do not tell your child that everything will be better soon. This is not something within our control. Such assurances can lead to disappointment and loss of trust. Instead, Inna suggests formulations like: “I do not know when the war will end. No one knows this. But every day is one day closer to victory!”

When communicating with a child, it is important not only to answer questions, but also to validate his or her experience. These days we may observe anger or aggression in our children, and this scares many adults. But if we to scold them, we essentially forbid them to feel what they are feeling. A child may conclude that she is a bad person because she gets angry. In addition, suppressing aggression can lead to self-harm. It is essential to convey that all emotions are normal, including anger – particularly at wartime.

Part 2 aims to support children whose families were forced to leave home. It addresses topics such as handling changes (feeling “not like at home”), integrating new experiences in a healthy way, and facing uncertainty. In the latter case, for instance, we work on restoring familiar rituals in the new city. Helplessness is dangerous, so we try to do small everyday things with the child: cook something together, shop for groceries, and so on.

This part also offers advice for stabilizing the psychological state of parents who find themselves in this challenging situation. It is vital that they help themselves before they can support their children. One of the essential pieces of advice in this context is: do not blame yourself for anything (you should have fled earlier, you chose the wrong destination, you should have stayed at home, etc.). Remember: in times of war, any decision you make about your family’s safety is the right one.

The third video addresses sleep issues, which are common at wartime. Some suggestions include setting up “helping forces” at bedtime. Perhaps it’s a fairy of dreams, who watches over all children while they rest. Perhaps it’s a protective soft toy to sleep with. Perhaps it is simply a safe blanket: when you hide under it, nothing can hurt you. Whatever it may be, established safety rituals can sustain children through the night.

This part also offers step-by-step instructions on what to do when a child is having a nightmare. Despite what may be our first instinct, do not touch or hug him if his eyes are still closed. If he dreams that someone is chasing him, or that he is trying to escape a dangerous situation, being held tight may not be comforting at all. Instead, sit next to him and call him by name. Say: “You are asleep. You’re having a nightmare. Just a dream. I’m your mother / father. I’m with you. You will wake up now and I will hold you. We are safe.”

Finally, part 4 deals with the games children play at wartime. These may become more aggressive. It is important to remember that such play activity is normal, because everything that happens around children is reflected in their games. The war is happening now, so playtime will inevitably incorporate it.

Through play and drawing, children can express their feelings and relieve tension. If a child draws tanks all the time, this is the therapeutic activity for her now. Remember: as long as she plays and draws, she feels safe, because only in a safe environment can she express herself freely. Instead, start paying closer attention when the child avoids games altogether, or appears emotionless.

Any aggression a child may be expressing is caused by external experiences. When you see her anger, or feel it yourself, tell her and tell yourself: you are not a bad person. You are a person who is reacting with anger to certain circumstances. Indeed, the circumstances now are far from ordinary. We hope this series of videos offers some support in navigating them.