Solution 14:27 19 Jan 2024

Safe space SviTy works to pull young people out of trauma and help them adapt to life in wartime

With full-scale war soon entering its third year, Ukrainian children and teenagers are acutely aware of what is happening around them. Often, they feel alone with their experiences and are afraid to share them with others. How can parents help their children when they need it and teach stress resistance amid new living conditions? Rubryka learned what the SviTy psychosocial assistance center team for teenagers is doing to answer these questions.

What is the problem?

According to a sociological study by Rating, about half of children over the age of three are afraid of loud noises. Among the problems they note are an increased level of apathy, even to things that they used to like; irritability, insomnia, crying for no reason, withdrawal, and memory problems. Mothers often notice how children reproduce traumatic moments in games.

Some Ukrainian children were separated from their relatives, moved to other regions, came under fire and under occupation, lost their homes, and some of them witnessed the death of loved ones.

According to the Ministry of Social Policy, as of 2023, 25 %  of the nearly five million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Ukraine are children under 18.

Alyona and her daughter Mariia came to Zhytomyr from Kramatorsk, in Ukraine's embattled Donetsk region, after full-scale hostilities broke out in 2022. Alyona says that at first, it was very difficult in the new place with no friends or relatives to help.

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Alyona and Mariia.

The resettler says that they managed to leave Kramatorsk a few hours before Russian troops attacked the railway station – with hundreds of people waiting for evacuation trains at the station.

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On April 8, 2022, 61 people died, including seven children, and 121 people were injured. On the rocket that hit the city was written: "For children."

Alyona says that after moving to Zhytomyr, she and her daughter agreed to try meetings with a child psychologist. To the mother's joy, it greatly helped the girl — after interactive classes with a specialist, the child returned to cheerfulness and brightness.

The support of adults is significant to children now, although they often keep quiet, close in on themselves, and are afraid to ask for help. Parents often do not understand how to help, because they, too, are confused and scared.

What is the solution?

When the full-scale invasion began, many displaced persons with children found relative safety in  Lviv, in the west of Ukraine. "We have seen that teenagers especially lack proper attention from their parents. The parents themselves were shocked and also engaged in recovery," says Tetyana Davydovska, a psychologist and co-founder of the SviTy center. That's how the idea arose to unite children and give them support so that they have adults they can rely on.

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Photos of the team and guests from the opening day.

The SviTy space is where children of displaced persons and military personnel can find a new circle of friends and hobbies, have fun spending time together, and work with experienced psychologists. The institution offers recovery practices, developmental master classes, and group and individual work with psychologists. In addition, teachers conduct sports classes, exercises to practice speaking English, and other activities of interest to teenagers of different ages.

 Zhytomyr became the fourth city – after Lviv, Cherkasy, and Khmelnytskyi – where SviTy operates a relief center with the support of charitable foundations BGV and Kids of Ukraine. The family of the founder of the BGV foundation, Gennadii Butkevych, provided funds for the center and the complete renovation of the communal premises.

Polina Aldoshyna, director of BGV, explains how a child can get to the center. The program is designed for children aged 12 to 16 with IDP status or whose parents are military personnel, both active and those who were killed in action. It is necessary to fill out a small questionnaire, which will be sent to the center's electronic system. After that, the administrator calls back the mother, father, or other relative, indicated in the questionnaire, and offers to come to the center for an interview.

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Polina Aldoshyna.

The interview is mandatory and necessary so that the psychologist can communicate with the child and parents and understand whether the child really wants to come here. The main rule is that it should be the teenager's own will.

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Artem Mazur is the co-founder of the project.

Artem Mazur, co-founder of the project, adds that the main task of the center's specialists is to help get children out of a traumatic state and to adapt them to the realities of life in which Ukrainians live now.

The center is open to willing teenagers. To participate in the program, parents need to fill out a questionnaire.

How does it work?
What parents should do when a child needs help but refuses it

Psychologist Tetyana Davydovska believes it is imperative not to force a child to do anything. "Only motivation works. We can motivate a teenager only when they are interested in it, and it is interesting only when some need is being met here," says Davydovska. It is enough to simply offer the child to come and try.

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Tatiana Davydovska.

At the same time, such communication requires a foundation of trust, where parents live up to what they say and do. Building trusting relationships is a daily job.

Alyona also confirms these words. She says she did not have to persuade her daughter to come to the center: "She did not need to be persuaded because she is open to everything new, always happy to make new friends and acquaintances — she is an adventurer."

Alyona notes that they have a trusting relationship, so her little one calmly talks about everything and is open to all the ideas offered by her mother. Tetyana adds that not only parents can motivate, but the school also plays an important role. In particular, in Lviv, the team hangs informational posters in educational institutions. It works because children get to know the project on their own and become interested in it.

How the SviTy space works

The project's co-founder says the results are already visible at the open centers: children gather, make friends, and adapt to a new place faster.

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One of the center's visitor with a psychologist.

"They miss each other and correspond outside the center. When we do field camps, children from all over Ukraine gather, and people from Kharkiv, Mariupol, or Bakhmut meet," Davydovska told Rubryka. Children also continue to communicate with each other on the basis of belonging to the city or region. Davydovska adds that the main goal is strengthening ties between children, because the war destroys them.

Seventeen-year-old Kyrylo lived in Ukraine's Kharkiv region before the full-scale invasion. In 2022, he was invited to the SviTy summer camp. He says that at first, there was a bit of mistrust, but when he got to the camp himself, he realized what a colossal opportunity it was. He found new acquaintances, felt new emotions, and changed his own view of the world.

"I liked the warmth — how we were all accepted with an open heart. It is wonderful when you are listened to and helped in various situations. I am glad that I got there because you have to change something in yourself. It is not interesting to sit in one place. There is one chance in life, and you have to try everything," Kyrylo shares with Rubryka.

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Camp in the Carpathians. Photo: Kyrylo's personal archive

Children often request to learn to resolve conflicts, communicate, and gain media literacy. They need to know how to insist on their ideas and negotiate with parents and friends — these and other socially essential skills are taught at the center during everyday communication and in soft skills classes.

Once a month, the team conducts mini-trainings with interested parents so that the family system is strong and parents understand and share the values and purpose of the project.

The program is based on approaches used in the USA and Europe: art therapy classes, relaxation techniques, interactive exercises, play therapy, and sound therapy. All the necessary tools for this are on hand.

Older teenagers are especially fond of games – in particular "Mafia" – movie screenings, weaving Motanka dolls, and studying the history and culture of the Zhytomyr region.

"All teenagers first come and do not believe the exercises will help. They understand that it works only with experience and a record of progress. We teach them to record progress through their own emotional state," says Davydovska.

She shares that the center creates a safe, non-judgmental space so participants can freely express themselves without fear of being judged.

Alyona adds that she likes the relaxed form of classes the most: "They draw, play. There is no way for a psychologist to say: 'Tell me about your problems.' They try to help the child in roundabout ways."


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