In today’s Ukraine, reaching out to psychologists and psychotherapists for help has become the norm. It wasn’t always so. For a long time, the subject of mental health was taboo. But Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has made psychological support a topical issue. This refers not only to complicated cases when experts deal with victims of violence or people released from captivity. Children also suffer from enormous stress.
Olena Merzliakova, a psychologist and Ph.D. in Psychology, shared effective and simple tips for parents. She is one of the experts engaged for the EU-funded hotline established this summer by the UNDP.
Should parents talk to children about the war?
The unambiguous answer of most experts is “yes”. Children should know the truth. “This is part of our life. Why do we engage with children? We do this to prepare them for life, as well as to adapt them to it. If we don’t talk to children, they will not be adjusted to life,” explains Olena Merzliakova.
According to the psychologist, the war has exposed all the unsolved challenges which existed before the war began. “Each child undergoes personal development crises. However, a war makes a crisis more acute and if any additional challenges emerge, a child suffers from a more painful crisis. Parents want to protect their children. However, if they don’t understand their growing-up challenges, what do they protect their children from? They protect them from their own fears, but not from the feelings of their children,” Olena explains.
Why does children’s behaviour change?
The psychologist recalled her own personal story. Her four-year-old grandson was evacuated from Kyiv to Lviv. And the cheerful child who loved walking turned into a capricious boy constantly glued to his smartphone. “I later understood that the child had changed three places of residence and communities over 2-3 months because of evacuation. And he needs stability at least in some aspects of life. Thus, smartphone games are small sources of stability for him,” she says.
Parents of children of a similar age often reach out to psychologists. “Parents told me that after relocation, their child started to fall down on the floor and have a fit of hysterics, although this had never happened before. In other words, the child became capricious. My answer was the following: think about how your child feels after all the relocations and changes. They can’t express their emotions. Children can control their emotions only after they turn six or seven,” warns the expert.
Olena also believes that the emotional state of parents influences their children. “For example, if a mother thinks about how to survive in a situation and is nervous, she transmits this to her child. I would advise a mother or father to calm down. Children – especially young children – fully reflect the emotional state of their parents,” says Olena Merzliakova.
How should parents engage with teenagers?
The teenage years are challenging for most children. According to the psychologist, teenagers who have relocated abroad and abruptly changed their community face the greatest challenges. “When children have to learn a new culture or language, they need to share their feelings with somebody. Engaging with their community is very important for teenagers. Some children feel that their parents don’t hear or understand them. In such case, parents should open a dialogue with their children. They should more actively engage with their children or use art therapy – propose them to draw a situation which concerns them on paper. In fact, art therapy is very useful,” underlines the expert.
Community and adaptation challenges also include school issues. “You should not expect the same success as before from your child. Since studying at school during the war is, first of all, about socialisation and adaptation. Socialisation is more important than a studying progress. And we give advice primarily on skills reinforcement and knowledge consolidation. Insulating children from additional stress is very important,” says Olena Merzliakova.
Useful hands-on exercises recommended by the expert:
For example, pull your hands to your chest by clenching the fists and tightening all arm muscles. Stay in this position for 15 seconds, then slowly relax back to the original position while counting up to 30. Focus on the feeling of relaxation.
Stand up, close your eyes, and raise your hands. Imagine that you are an icicle. Tense all the muscles in your body. Remember this feeling. Stay in this position for 1-2 minutes. Then imagine that you start slowly melting under the influence of the sun, relaxing gradually your hands and the muscles of your shoulders, neck, body, legs, etc. Remember your feelings of relaxation. Repeat this exercise until you achieve the best possible emotional state. You can also do this exercise while lying on the floor.
An EU-funded hotline provides professional psychological assistance to Ukrainians affected by the war. The line, with the number 0-800-100-102, works every day from 10:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Calls from Ukraine are free of charge.
Author: Olga Konsevych
Article published in Ukrainian by Tsn.ua
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