What is the problem?
Children who saw the war are different. Some of them are afraid of thunder, some draw ruins, others lose their balance or are afraid to be separated from their mother even for a short time. Nicole Porter Willcox, a psychotherapist from America, the founder and director of the art therapy center, who conducted educational trainings for Ukrainian colleagues from the Voices of Children Foundation, tells how exactly the experience of war affects children's psyche. "The verbal functions of the brain are turned off, and the brain itself begins to work with all its might to find an answer to the question: "Why did this happen to me?" If left untreated, these obsessive thoughts can eventually lead to physical disorders and/or disturbing habits that also cause physical health problems for the child. The negative experience of war lives in the body. We can't change what happened – but therapeutic support and warm human communication can change the way a child experiences the war and give him/her back a sense of security."
What is the solution?
Art therapy: response without retraumatization
The human psyche – and especially children's one – has a tremendous potential for recovery. It is only necessary to create appropriate conditions for this. A supportive environment and ecological methods of working with trauma work wonders – the employees and volunteers of the Voices of Children Charitable Foundation know this well. Founded back in 2015 to help children from the eastern regions, with the beginning of the full-scale Russian aggression, the Foundation expanded its activities to the territory of all of Ukraine. Today, the Foundation cooperates with more than 30 psychologists in 6 locations, who help children stabilize their condition and find a resource every day. And this, in turn, is the prevention of more severe manifestations of the consequences of war. Specialists conduct individual and group sessions, art therapy classes. Only in the fifth month of the war, more than 400 children and their parents received psychosocial support. Psychologists of the Foundation use various methods, and mostly work in the field of art therapy. Why exactly art therapy?
Ruslana Moroz – candidate of psychological sciences, senior research associate of the Ukrainian scientific and methodical center (SMC) of practical psychology and social work of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, a psychotherapist with whom the Voices of Children Charitable Foundation cooperates. She coordinates the Foundation's team of supervisors and is herself constantly in the city, which is under frequent shelling, and therefore sees the situation not only from a professional point of view, but also from the inside. Ruslana Moroz explains: "The art therapy method has been around for over 80 years, its effectiveness and safety have long been proven. Actually, this feature – the possibility to react to feelings without retraumatization – makes art therapy unique. It is suitable for adults and children (from two years old), patients with long-standing trauma and in an acute condition. I worked with the art therapy method with the wounded in military hospitals back in 2014 – and the results were amazing.
Regarding children: it can be difficult for them to express their feelings in words, especially babies. In addition, we all tend to suppress traumatic experience, literally forget about it – this is the so-called traumatic amnesia, a protective mechanism of the psyche. The problem is that suppressed, unlived feelings never leave you. On the contrary, everything that we suppress sooner or later begins to control us – and one day the suppressed emotions can "explode" in such a way that there will be hell to pay. What does art therapy do? It allows you to go into the subconscious, bypassing "censorship" (protective mechanisms) and live through the feelings, release them, without even speaking about. And therefore, the risk of re-traumatization is almost zero. Timely crisis psychological help with the involvement of art therapy allows you to very effectively prevent the development of PTSD (post-traumatic syndrome)."
Nicole Porter Willcox adds, "Our traumatic memories are largely image-based. And art therapy opens up endless possibilities for releasing and transforming these images."
We invite you to a solemn burial of fears
In the centers of psychological assistance of the Voices of Children, children draw, sculpt from clay and plasticine, build figures from sand, play – and all this heals their souls. The secret is in the presence of an adult who allows them to create freely, does not criticize, asks the right questions and supports them.
"It is important to strengthen internal resources – and the child himself will "play out", draw out, sculpt his pain, and thus heal himself/herself," Ruslana Moroz continues. Art therapy is a very powerful tool. Children create spontaneously, not for the sake of the result. The process itself heals them.
In art therapy, children release feelings that they may have been ashamed of, or even did not understand at all: hatred, aggression, helplessness, longing. And this is good! We, psychologists and volunteers of the centers, calmly react to any manifestations of children – and we urge parents to do the same. For example, recently I had a boy in therapy who was directly affected by the Russian invaders: his house was destroyed, his father died. This guy had immense rage at those who did this, but also immense helplessness. He understood that he, a 5-year-old child, could not do anything against those who stole his home and the loved one. This boy and I made small puppets of the Russian occupiers and buried them in the yard. The kid dug the "grave" himself, buried the doll occupants himself, then put a small cross and sprinkled water on it – and while he was doing all this, pain seemed to pour out of him and go into the ground. The little patient played out his feelings – and this gave him back control and a sense of security. Nightmares disappeared.
A child can smash a toy enemy, tear his own drawings to pieces, scream, stomp – this is all normal. We let it happen and watch – to help when it's needed."
Childhood cannot be put on hold
Sessions with professional psychologists are a very important, but not decisive, component of overcoming war trauma. Most of all, the child's condition depends on authoritative figures: parents, grandparents, and other adults who have been in close contact with the child since childhood.
"I am absolutely sure: it largely depends on the family, whether the child will be "wounded" for the rest of his/her life by the horrors he/she had seen or felt in this war (like the generation of children of the Second World War), or he/she will live through them and be happy (as it happens with children, for example, Israel), says Ruslana Moroz. – Childhood cannot be put on pause – it happens here and now, during the war. In general, children do not know how to be unhappy – a healthy child's psyche will always make a choice in favor of joy. The task of adults is to create suitable conditions for this."
The psychologist gives simple working tools of art therapy that every mother or father can use to help her child cope with painful feelings. For this, it is not necessary to be a psychologist – parental love and sincere interest in the child's inner world is enough.
So how to help your child?
- Provide the child with materials for creativity. Colored pencils and paper are quite enough. But if there is an opportunity, diversify the choice: add plasticine (it works great with excited, nervous children), colored paper and scissors for cutting, scraps of fabric from which you can make rag dolls (motanka). Clay is an excellent therapeutic material, it is natural, alive, and working with it even treats psychosomatic diseases. It is also good to work with sand: you can build castles, figurines and then destroy them. It is important that at least some materials are always at hand, so that the child can create spontaneously, as soon as he/she has such a desire.
- Discuss the picture (a molded figure or a doll). When the child talks about the picture (what is depicted in it, why, what feels and what this or that character wants), he/she learns to recognize and realize his own feelings. This is a very important skill of a happy person.
- Do not criticize or give advice. You should not ask: "Why is your sun green?" or to say: "A bunny does not have four ears!" Don't confuse this with feedback. You can say: "I have noticed something in your drawing, if you don't mind, I'll tell you."
- Do not be afraid of negativity. Dark colors, playing scenes of violence for a child who has had a traumatic war experience are the norm. An adult's reaction is important here. Do not be frightened, do not grab the heart, do not try to distract the child (if, for example, he/she plays out the scenes of violence). Otherwise, fixation on the experience may occur, and this increases the already heavy burden on the child's psyche. Keep calm, a message should be sent from you: everything is fine with you, no matter what happens, I will endure it.
- Offer to draw with the non-leading hand (for a right-handed child – with the left and vice versa). This method allows you to "reach" the subconscious faster.
- Remember that the product of creativity is an extension of the child's "inner self". The child has the right to decide what to do with the drawing next (hang it on the wall, keep it or tear it up) and to whom to show it. In no case do post a photo on social networks, if the child did not give you permission to do so. Parents' praise is important for children, especially preschoolers. Sincerely admire the creativity of your son or daughter!
Gain the power of a fairy tale hero
Fairytale therapy is another example of how you can work with a child's drawing (and any other product of creativity). Folktales are a synergy of the historical experience of mankind on how to survive in this world. An author's fairy tale created by a child works in the same way. No matter how the story begins, it is important that the ending is positive. Ruslana Moroz talks about the main elements of the fairy tale.
- The main character (ask: "Who is depicted in your picture? Who does he live with? What does he want?")
- Action, or initiation, the hero's path. These are the actions that the character in the picture must perform in order to solve his/her problem and achieve his goal.
- Obstacles. It can be a river to cross or (in the context of the current situation) bombs, tanks.
- Assistants are the characters who help the hero to achieve his goals.
- Positive ending and conclusions.
It is important for parents to remember that the creator of the story is the child himself/herself. Adults only help and ask questions. "What would you like to change about the picture so that you like it?" or (if there is no assistant in the picture and the child cannot think of one): "Let's imagine together who or what it could be?" A healthy psyche is aimed at healing, so it will find answers. Be sure to keep a glass of water nearby. If you see that the child is stressed or cannot find a way out of the situation, suggest: "Take a sip of water. This is special water – it is alive, it will give a clue."
When a child creates a fairy tale and tells it aloud, he/she identifies himself/herself with the main character (even if it is a fairy-tale animal or a natural phenomenon), acquires strength and other positive qualities of this character. As a result, the range of his/her psychological resource expands – and he/she becomes stronger than his/her traumatic experience.
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