In Handy 09:00 07 Jan 2023

How to psychologically support a child in an evacuation? Psychologists’ advices to migrant parents

Moving to a new place of residence, or even to another country, is stressful, even if these changes are desired. The stress multiplies immensely if it is a forced move or an escape from a cruel enemy. What psycho-emotional challenges are the refugees currently facing? How to help yourself and your child to overcome them? Experienced psychologists share their advice.

What is the problem?

Today, millions of Ukrainians have either lost their homes physically or are unable to return there because of constant enemy shelling and destroyed infrastructure. As of December 20, more than 7.8 million refugees from Ukraine were registered in Europe. More than 6.5 million citizens became internally displaced in our country, and more than half of them (53%) have been in this status for more than six months. 

Homesickness, worry for the family, and the need to quickly adapt to new conditions, often – to a different language and socio-cultural environment – all this lead to excessive stress for both adults and children. A "suspended" state is often added to the difficulties of forced migration. It's a state of uncertainty that is very exhausting. Are we here for long? Is it worth putting down roots in another land if there is hope that the war will end soon and we will return home? 

"According to my observations, there are two categories of migrants who experience the greatest stress now," Liudmula Romanenko says, a psychologist with whom the Voices of Children Foundation cooperates, a supervisor of the Center for Psychosocial Rehabilitation of NaUKMA. "The first one includes teenagers: simply because, in addition to all the challenges of forced migration, the difficulties of the teenage period are added. Besides, in adolescence, socialization and communication with peers come to the fore – if a child does not know the language of the country where they moved, this becomes an additional stressful factor. 

The second category comprises people from active combat areas who saw shelling, destruction, and perhaps death, were under occupation, or had been hiding in cold basements for weeks. For them, adaptation in a new place is complicated by a previous traumatic experience, which they haven't coped with yet."

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Nicole Porter Willcox, an art therapist, the founder and director of the Emerald Sketch Art Therapy Center, and the president of the New York Art Therapy Association adds: "IDPs do not immediately feel peace and tranquility once they find themselves in a safe environment. For many of them, the "war within" is still going on and may continue for a long time. Violation of the sense of internal security manifests itself in different ways. 

Regressive behavior is very often observed among children, a kind of "rollback" to previous stages of development when acquired skills and abilities are lost for a while. For example, even older children may want to sit in their mother's lap as little ones, someone becomes "untidy" or "forgets" how to read and write. These or other symptoms of regression can be present among teenagers and even among adults. It is important to understand and convey to the child: these are normal reactions to a devastating experience."

What is the solution?

According to the Ministry of Health forecasts, Ukrainians will experience the psychological consequences of the war (in particular, PTSD) for another seven to ten years. But this is not a sentence – you can work with any condition. Many programs and charitable initiatives already exist, aiming at helping re-live the trauma of the war and thereby heal. 

Among others, the Voices of Children Charitable Foundation provides psychosocial support (art therapy, fairy-tale therapy, the Children and War CBT program, the Safe Space correctional and development program), and mobile teams of psychological assistance also work in several regions of Ukraine.

Working through the experience with psychologists helps children of war and their parents regain control over their reactions. Internally displaced persons can receive support in person at one of the Foundation's 6 locations (Kyiv, Lviv, Chernivtsi, Ivano-Frankivsk, Truskavets, and Berehove). There is also online psychological support, which you can apply from anywhere worldwide. Psychologists who cooperate with the Foundation share techniques to help internally displaced people reduce anxiety and feel more cozy and comfortable in a new city.діти-переселенці

Become ambassadors of Ukraine, not of the war

The psychologist Liudmila Romanenko lived and worked with the displaced persons in a front-line town in the Luhansk region for 8 years. After the full-scale invasion, she left with her son, and now they live near the capital. Therefore, Romanenko talks about the challenges of forced evacuation not only from an expert point of view but also based on her own experience. 

"I often hear from those who went abroad about the feeling of a wall between them and the host community," the psychologist says. "Refugees say: "They sincerely try to support us. But it seems that Europeans cannot fully understand what we feel. Because of this, the feeling of loneliness and detachment from the roots only grows." Well, that's a valid point. Indeed, those who have not been directly affected by the war cannot fully feel what you feel – not because they are heartless, but simply because they do not have the relevant experience. 

I offer to become ambassador not of the war but of Ukraine. Tell the foreign community about Ukraine, let them see it through your eyes, and help them fall in love with it! You can cooperate with other immigrants and do cultural events to support Ukraine: fairs, food markets, etc. Be sure to involve children in the initiatives. First of all, it will be much easier for them to make new friends. And secondly, the state of proactivity is contagious in a good sense. When your son or daughter sees your inspiration, it will be easier for them to switch from anxious thoughts to active actions.

Finding one's own meaning in new conditions is also very important. No one knows how long you will be in an evacuation. But in any case, I advise you to integrate into the community's life — to the extent that it is comfortable for you and your child. Try to make your dwelling — even a temporary one — to be home. Even if you live here just for a few months, you will live them as comfortably as possible. This does not necessarily require a lot of money. Make clay figures together with your child or weave a mandala and hang drawings on the walls. Cook your favorite home meals. These little things fill you with inner strength — and thus create a resource for adaptation."


Keep the banks!

"In terms of adaptation, babies and toddlers usually have an easier time than teenagers," Romanenko continues. "Yes, babies can "read" mom's anxious state and react to it. But usually, their attention does not get stuck in sad experiences for a long time; they quickly find contact with their peers and literally pick up the language on the go. 

But it can be just as difficult for teenagers as adults — and maybe even more difficult. One of the key features of adolescence is duality: young people want to be free, but at the same time, they still need their parents' boundaries for their psycho-emotional health. I always offer this analogy. Children are a river. And parents — are the banks. The banks do not prevent the river from flowing, but when they are washed out, the river turns into a swamp. In other words, respect the child's feelings, even if you don't understand them. But at the same time, remain the one in charge — the one who makes decisions and bears responsibility for them."

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The psychologist advises on how to help a child feel more comfortable during the evacuation.  

  • Do not demand super success in studies. Emotional exhaustion (which is now experienced by all Ukrainian children) often leads to a decrease in concentration, attentiveness, and interest in learning. Therefore, you should not expect the child to study as successfully as at home. The main message should be: "It is not possible not to attend school, but let's think together about how to facilitate this process."
  • Keep in touch with your home school. Yes, parallel learning offline at the local school and online at the home school is challenging. But the kids I work with say it gives a sense of home and helps maintain relationships with old friends. Alternatively, you can attend only your favorite subjects or extracurriculars online.
  • Help find new friends. I advise parents: to talk, listen, empathize, and show an example of openness to others – this will help your child a lot. Of course, if possible, try to find a school where there are already Ukrainian children – it will be easier for them to adapt together.
  • Don't be too hard on yourself. It is very difficult for mothers in an evacuation. Therefore, it is important to support not only the child but also yourself. Even if you lost your temper, or scolded your child, don't label yourself as a "bad mother". It is worth apologizing and explaining what exactly the child's action caused such a reaction. Be gentle not only with the child's "weaknesses" but also with your own — in this way, you will help them to develop a gentle and friendly attitude towards themself. 

I emphasize: "taking it easy" does not mean condescending and turning a blind eye to the problem – it is rather about accepting and acknowledging one's own imperfections and treating oneself and the child well despite these peculiarities.

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Long distance relationship

Children, especially young ones, perceive distance and time differently than adults. Some (especially teenagers) may miss their dad and relatives who remained in Ukraine. Others may act as if they don't care, even refusing to talk to relatives on the phone. So how to develop relationships with relatives at a distance? Lyudmila Romanenko advises: 

"Always try to understand what is behind the child's unwanted behavior. For example, pretending indifference and refusing to talk to dad via video call can be a defensive reaction. That is, it is so difficult for the child that their psyche is saved by avoiding any contact with the "trigger" (in this case – with relatives from Ukraine). In any case, you should not force the child to communicate with relatives. However, you can create a favorable atmosphere for such communication. 

For example, I know a grandmother, a math teacher, who teaches her grandchildren remotely. Joint activity is important for a child. Dad can play chess online with his son or daughter, read books aloud, and watch cartoons together. If the child does not want this, do not press. You can simply communicate with your husband and other relatives on the speakerphone in the child's presence. Even if the child does not participate in communication, they are in the family circle and hear their voices — this supports the relationship between them. 

I know a family in which the grandson saw his grandfather for the first time when he was 3 years old, but literally from the first minutes, the kid showed love and affection for him because, before that, he constantly heard how his grandfather talked about him on the speakerphone. 

In a long-distance relationship, not only moments of direct communication are important, but also thoughts about a person during the day. You and your child can write letters to your relatives in Ukraine and make a chest of impressions and crafts, which the child will later share with their family. Or create photo reports of the day/week for each other in Google Photos."

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Even more helpful solutions!

Psychological exercises for everyday

Nicole Porter Willcox gives simple everyday tips that will help the child and parents relieve the mind and psyche, adding lightness and warmth to the relationship.

  1. Map of emotions. Every day we experience dozens of different psycho-emotional states, but most people identify only the basic ones: "I'm sad/scared" or "I'm satisfied/happy." At the same time, to cope with painful feelings, it is essential to recognize and name them. Recognizing one's feelings helps one work with them and control reactions. You can make emotion cards or an emotion map together with the children. The more different states the child names or draws, the better. You can also draw it yourself or find it on the Internet, print out Robert Plutchyk's circle of emotions, and hang it on the wall. This visual map of emotions helps children (and adults, too) develop the skill of listening to their feelings and understanding what is happening to them.
  2. Drawing as a field for transformations. Often, simply "drawing out" your pain or sadness already means coping with it, at least partially. But you can invite the child to go further. For example, a son or daughter drew their sadness for their homeland as an animal (or something else — the specific visual image in this context is not so important). Ask: "What does this animal want? What can be given to him to make him feel better? What can be added to the picture so that the animal feels the warmth of its home?" During this exercise, adults should do their best never to project their own ideas or fears onto the innocent child's work but allow the child's story to emerge.
  3. Mirror-mirror. This is a fun role-playing game, the essence of which is that players face each other. The leader expresses some feeling with the help of facial expressions, movements, and posture — and the other player must mirror everything that the leader demonstrated. No words — you should only express yourself non-verbally. Then the players switch roles. This game can be played with more people; thus, everyone leads in turn. This game is useful, first of all, because it helps manifest and release emotions physically. And secondly, it will help overcome the language barrier between peers if you were evacuated abroad. "Mirror-mirror" works great with babies, teenagers, and their parents! 
  4. Safety islands. Encourage your child to notice and record moments when they feel cozy and comfortable throughout the day. What things or actions helped them feel safe? You can give your child a small talisman toy to school: "If you feel anxious or sad, touch this talisman in your pocket, it will remind you how much I love and wait for you."
  5. What kind of animal are you? Another therapeutic game is to remember a person the child has met during the day and think of a safe animal (or fairy creature) that best matches the essence of that person. You can draw pictures or find suitable pictures in children's books. Usually, this game causes a lot of laughter and positivity, and laughter itself is very healing.


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