Other victims of war: caring for the mental health of children

Ihor Bazan

Maintaining a stable psychological state during the war is essential, especially in young children. Children should not see war. But unfortunately, we have already seen it in one form or another. What can parents do to help their child survive this experience, maintain mental health and become more psychologically resilient?

There are physical risks to children living in combat areas, such as inhaling smoke and ash from fires and explosions that can affect the nose and lungs. But there are also risks to mental health. Studies have shown that children and families living in or fleeing war regions are at increased risk of suffering from mental health problems.

Experts agree that if you feel anxious, avoid scrolling thoughts – the act of spending too much time on negative news. The first thing to know is that avoiding this topic can cause children to feel fear, says Anne Lemche, a psychologist and child counselor at Save the Children.

Professor Vivian Hill of the British Psychological Society recommends setting the conversation according to age. For younger children, she believes, it can be as simple as showing them where Ukraine is on the map to understand that it is happening somewhere far away from them. For older children, this may involve providing a specific context.

But at any age, the main thing is to calm them down. If parents themselves are anxious, children can understand this, so it is essential that adults also receive support.

The professor adds: “The advice I would give to children is just as relevant for adults. You have to make every effort to keep track of time, where you just have fun and run away from all the gloom. It’s about compassion for everyone, including yourself.”

There is a lot of evidence that doing something for other people really has a positive effect on your mental health. If we understand that we have done good for someone, we feel good. Our brains are created to be social and connect with something bigger than us, which is good for our well-being.

In times of the war, parents and carers play an essential role in protecting children and helping them cope. But even the most straightforward help for a child in an emergency can be a challenge.

The experts say it’s important to make sure that children are provided structure as much as possible while living in war zones to help with their development and well-being.

Studies have shown that a soothing presence can minimize post-traumatic problems in later life. In their 1943 book, War and Children, psychoanalysts Anna Freud and Dorothy Burlingham studied preschool children in three London kindergartens orphaned or evacuated during World War II. They found that during traumatic events, the presence of a caregiver who paid attention to the child and cared for their needs was a key source of stability.

But the chaos of war can make parental protection an unattainable goal. In Ukraine, adult men between 18 and 60 have been banned from leaving the country after President Volodymyr Zelensky declared martial law and imposed compulsory conscription. Many parents volunteered for the army.

Without parents or guardians who offer love and support, children can experience stress, which often has severe mental health and development consequences.

Conflict-related injuries can cause “increased heart rate, respiration, and stress hormones associated with fighting or fleeing.” Repeated exposure to toxic stress can thus affect the brains of developing children and have implications for learning, behavior and health.

For those in trouble, a practice called “first aid” can be helpful, says Murray. Ideally, this is provided by a mental health professional or a trained volunteer who takes the person aside and provides basic guidelines for overcoming and surviving.

Some children in Ukraine are showing incredible endurance despite all these difficulties, says Anastasia Lebed, a licensed child psychologist and psychotherapist.

It is necessary to understand that people face the horrors of war, but the stars are never as clear as on the darkest night. So, it is necessary to learn to see the stars in this darkness. The war showed who is who. And these things need to be “photographed with the heart” – it obliges to look at them, to touch them, to remember them.