Kate, the 10-year-old daughter of Hanna Usatenko, is afraid that the war in Ukraine will cause her to lose her memory.
She heard the deafening sound of rocket attacks. She had to flee her home in Kyiv with her father and 12-year-old sister – while her mother, a psychologist, psychotherapist and nurse, stayed behind to volunteer at local hospitals.
About a week after the war began, Kate called her mother and told her she had trouble concentrating when she read her books. She even “uploaded an IQ test to check if she is less intelligent than before,” said Usatenko, 40.
Usatenko, who treats both children and adults in her psychotherapy practice, explained to her daughter, “You have high anxiety. And when people have high anxiety, it’s normal to be forgetful.” She keeps a notebook with her at all times to jot everything down – and told her daughter to do the same.
And although Usatenko is not physically with her daughters, she calls them several times a day to check on them. “We talk a lot. I ask them how they feel. What they see,” she says.
“They miss me, but they are safe now,” she adds. “The children who stay here [in parts of Ukraine under bombardment] really suffer from more serious things – the violence, the shelling, the loss, the physical pain, the insecurity.”
The power of parental presence
In times of crisis, parents and guardians play a vital role in protecting children and helping them cope. But even providing the simplest care for a child in an emergency can be a challenge.
The advice is exactly what you can imagine: if possible, the parent or close guardian should be on their side.
Research has shown that this type of reassuring presence can minimize post-traumatic problems later in life. In their 1943 book war and children, psychoanalysts Anna Freud and Dorothy Burlingham studied preschool children in three nurseries in London who were orphaned or evacuated during World War II. They found that during traumatic events, the presence of a caregiver who paid attention to a child and met their needs was an essential source of stability.
If an attack, such as a bombing, occurs “when young children are placed in the care of either their own mother or a mother familiar to them, they do not seem particularly affected by it [in the long run]. Their experience remains an accident, in line with other childhood accidents,” Freud and Burlingham write in their book.
“[Parents and caretakers] provide that layer of protection between the child and this horrible world that is going on around these children,” says Charles Nelson, professor of pediatrics, neuroscience and psychology at Harvard Medical School, who studies child development in the face of to adversity.
The consequences when parental protection weakens
But the chaos of war can make parental protection an unattainable goal. In Ukraine, adult men between the ages of 18 and 60 were banned from leaving the country after President Volodymyr Zelensky declared martial law and instituted compulsory military conscription. Many fathers volunteered to enlist in the military. Even Usatenko felt the need to stay in Kyiv, away from her husband and two young daughters, to help others as a medical volunteer.
Without a parent or guardian to offer love and support, children can experience the kind of stress that often results in serious mental health and developmental consequences.
Conflict-related trauma can trigger “elevations in heart rate, breathing, and stress hormones related to the fight-or-flight response. Repeated exposure to toxic stress in this way can affect children’s brain development and have lifelong consequences for learning, behavior and health,” says Theresa Betancourt, professor at Boston College School of Social Work and director of the Children and Adversity Research Program.
Nelson says those impacts even include an increased risk of developing heart disease and diabetes.
For parents and caregivers trying to “protect these experiences for children,” Betancourt recommends UNICEF’s guidance for parents on how to talk to children about conflict and war. Developed in conjunction with mental health experts and child psychologists, the advice includes making sure to ask children how they are feeling, not minimizing or dismissing their worries, and speaking softly to children about what is going on. .
A mother that Betancourt seen interviewed on CNN March 16 is a pattern, she said.
Olena Gnes spoke about what it was like to live in an underground shelter in Kyiv with her three young children, who were also filmed.
During the interview, Gnes “demonstrated his tremendous ability to stay calm but present for his children,” Betancourt said. This includes “calming them down and holding them, letting them snuggle next to her while she was talking.”
It also seemed like the mother had “shared honest and age-appropriate information,” she says. Gnes told the CNN interviewer that his older children, ages 5 and 7, understood that their country was at war with Russia – and that the explosions they heard all around them were dangerous for them. their safety.
But in times of crisis, everyone struggles to cope.
The ability to solve problems “collapses very quickly when we experience trauma,” says Laura Murray, a senior scientist at Johns Hopkins University who specializes in childhood trauma in disasters and has worked on mental health initiatives. in low-resource countries. works differently.”
For those in distress, a practice called “psychological first aid” can be helpful, Murray says. Ideally, it is provided by a mental health professional or trained volunteer who takes the person aside and gives basic counseling on coping and survival.
Volunteers can help “reorient a parent” by holding their child for a while while they calm down – and check to see if they are “in a healthy place to interact with their child,” says Murray.
“It’s an ear, it’s a calm voice that gives them the support they need,” like food, water and shelter, she adds. Volunteers also ask questions like, “Is your child warm? When did you last eat?
But such questions may be unanswered in a crisis. In Ukraine, Russian forces destroyed sources of electricity, heat and water. The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, does not know whether its shipments of blankets, sleeping bags, canned food and other emergency aid can enter Kyiv, Mariupol or other besieged towns. Even shelters intended to keep children and families safe have been attacked by Russian forces.
Despite all these difficulties, some children in Ukraine show incredible resilience, says Anastasia Lebed, a licensed child psychologist and psychotherapist who fled kyiv with her family to their summer home in Bila Tserkva, about 2 hours by car from the capital. She spoke with some of her patients.
She says her 15-year-old son was fairly calm, although he woke her up on the 24th before they fled, saying the Russians were shelling kyiv.
“The new thing that’s happening to him is that he’s writing songs and drawing things that he’s never done before,” says Lebed, who encourages him to express his emotions through his art. .
She proudly holds up a pencil drawing of a shape on a sheet of computer paper. At first glance, an observer might think it looks like flames erupting around a tall building — but it’s not, Lebed says. Take a closer look, she says: it’s the soft, shaggy fur of their pet cat.
Yura Rudenko served as an interpreter for interviews conducted for this story.