Psychologist on children and war: Parents must present a picture that is not totally hopeless

In the past few weeks the Czech Republic has opened its door to over 300,000 Ukrainian war refugees, a great many of whom are children. While their material needs are being taken care of, the process of healing war traumas is much more complicated. I spoke to one of the Czech Republic’s leading experts in the field of child psychology, Petra Winnette Vrtbovska about the problems that need to be addressed and how these children can best be helped to overcome the ordeal they experienced.

“Of course it is horrifying –children experiencing war, escaping with their mothers, saying goodbye to their fathers …It is up to the adults to help them get through it and if possible to help minimize the impact. It is good to bear in mind that children depend on their primary caregivers –mothers, fathers, grandparents. The brain of a small child is not yet mature enough to critically assess the situation and children will always look up to their caregivers to see how to process a given situation emotionally and cognitively.”

What are the signs that something is seriously wrong – that the child is suffering from war trauma?

Petra Winnette Vrtbovská | Photo: Alžběta Švarcová,  Czech Radio

“The typical signs are those reflecting heightened anxiety –the child might have sleep problems, eating problems, and in more severe cases, the child might experience panic attacks, have trouble speaking, shake or have hyper-ventilation, be hyper-active or else completely unresponsive, some children may show signs of dissociation, being disconnected from reality –emotionally and cognitively. So those are the severe signs and if parents, caregivers or social workers recognize them they should get the child professional help from a psychologist or if need be a psychiatrist.

“In less severe cases of trauma parents may notice that the child is sticking to them all the time, doesn’t want to leave their side, asks a lot of questions and seeks reassurance, they may be more aggressive than usual or else quieter and more depressed than usual. As long as the child is still “connected” and communicating with the caregiver there is always a much better chance to help.”

If the child is communicating and asking a lot of questions –how should parents respond to questions of the type- will I die? Or, will there be a third world war? How should they reassure a child who may fear for a father or brother who is fighting?

“It is very, very important to focus on the present situation and create a feeling of safety. It is vital to help the child realize that they are now safe, that they have a place to sleep, food to eat and establish some kind of routine where children can eat, sleep and play and focus on what is happening at the present time. And, as regards their fear for others –especially with younger kids under 11 or 12 – it is good to tell them that adults are strong and in control, that they can take care of themselves and that we will see them again. We need to disperse their fears and the feeling that they need to be in control of the situation or help the adults somehow.”

How can one make up for loss of home, pets or favourite toys?

Illustrative photo: inelightarts,  Pixabay,  CC0 1.0

“You know the truth is, that although kids have favourite places, toys and pets, sometimes parents underestimate the fact that the most important figure for the child is the parent – or primary caregiver – mother, grandmother – the person who is closest, who can reassure and can help the child see the situation and present a picture that is not totally hopeless. In such a case, the child will get through such a disaster better. So of course, you can offer a new toy, but I would recommend that parents spend a lot of time with their children, talk to them, cuddle them, touch them, reassure them, be with them, because that is the most effective way how to help traumatized children.”

If a child has problems opening up and speaking about their fears or what they experienced – is it a good idea to have them draw pictures?

“Yes, definitely because especially younger children’s language skills are usually not developed enough for them to express complicated thoughts and feelings so drawing pictures, playing with clay is a good form of expression. Take them out on a walk in the woods, let them play with sticks and stones and be creative. If they draw a picture linked to the war -ask them what it is, how they feel about it, who is winning and who is losing. It is important to connect with the child so they know that there is someone there for them who understands, listens and is ready to help. That is the essential thing. Whatever means we have of getting that message across will be good.”

For a child who has seen the horrors of war, who has seen buildings being bombed, dead bodies and blood and who has been parted from a father who has gone to fight – is it possible to ever forget? Or are those memories closed off somewhere in the back of their minds, to emerge years later?

Photo: René Volfík,  iROZHLAS.cz

“Well, our brain is a very complex machine and whenever there is an experience that includes a life-threatening situation for us or for our people then those memories are very strongly ingrained, they have a strong emotional impact –understandably so, because they are meant to protect us in the future.  We do not believe that these memories will disappear of their own accord. So the current understanding is that it is important to process them and keep them “available”, to talk about them, to share them with someone close and trustworthy, to grief together, cry together – that is better for the person’s future mental health that to try to forget and pretend these things never happened. And that applies to all kinds of adverse or traumatic experiences. The memory will keep it alive and be very sensitive for a long time but if we are consciously aware of it and someone helps us to process it then it has a lesser impact on our mental health than if we just tried to forget it.”

Children in this country are also not spared the sights of war. What advice do you have for Czech parents whose children are soaking all this up?

“It has been very tough and as a professional in the field I have been hearing about what parents tend to do, letting kids watch television with them all the time and then they see them get panicky and helpless about the situation. That way the children are hit by two things at the same time – war, which they cannot grasp yet and process and seeing their parents panic and lose control.

Bucha,  Ukraine | Photo: Rodrigo Abd,  ČTK/AP

“I know it is an extremely difficult situation for everybody, but it would be good if parents did not let children under 12 watch the news and instead talk to them about it –to present a modified picture which the kids can still handle, to protect them from getting too many details. And also, to tell them there are positive forces in the conflict, countries that are supportive and trying to restore peace – so that they are not overwhelmed by the terrible reality.

“You know how our grandparents used to say “don’t talk about it, there are kids here” –well, there’s a big wisdom in that. We must tell our children the truth – never lie to them – but we have to modify what we are telling them so that they can handle it. I very much wish schools would do that, and parents and everyone, because these memories and these experiences will have an impact on children’s mental health.”

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