When we talk about children affected by war, we usually mean those who live or have lived in the east of Ukraine. But there is another category of children who know about the war not by rumour, but because it happened that the social world did not fully realise what happened to them. These are children of combatants, those who are currently in the front line, and those who have already returned. These children live peacefully, far from the line of separation, they do not see the horrors of war, do not hear the whistling of bullets. But their souls have their own war, which they usually overcome alone.
Of course, children of veterans have a number of benefits, including free food in educational institutions, special conditions in applying to universities and the opportunity to have free rest in children’s health camps. But the question of professional psychological support for these children has just begun to raise. Why is this happening only in the fifth year of the war? Probably, we should look through the statistics. According to the data of the State Service of Ukraine for Veterans of War and ATO participants, as for 2018/11/1, the status of the participant of military actions from the beginning of military aggression was received by 354 112 people. According to unofficial sources (official statistics does not exist), the number of those who were actually involved in the war in the east of Ukraine is only about one-third of the total amount. All the others are those who, while performing their duties, were in the ATO zone for some time, but did not actually take a direct part in the fighting. Certainly, in particular, neither these people nor their families received a psychological trauma associated with the war, therefore, no special psychological help was needed.
Thus, the problem of the indirect psychological trauma of the child’s psyche as a result of the war simply drowned in the background of false prosperity. The single bright cases were not taken into account, and “petty” children’s problems were not shown by the parents. Until the moment when the psychologists-enthusiasts and not indifferent social workers started to raise flags. So, it’s about the children of the military, who swing between peace and war for the fifth year in a row.
The war strikes at a distance…
What happens to a child, if one of his parents is in the war zone? It should be noted that the level of perception of a traumatic situation depends, to a certain extent, on the child’s age. For teenagers, the stress associated with the warfare affects sensitivity and irritability that are the result of hormonal imbalance. The intensity of the emotional interpersonal connection between family members, when parents and children can feel each other at a distance, plays a significant role, too. But in any case, if one of the parents is in the war, the psyche of the child undergoes a lot of stresses:
– Stress associated with the fear for the life and health of father or mother (like the parent next to him, the child lives constantly waiting for the news, and the anxiety of the parents is known to be carried over to their child).
– Stress associated with the lack of ability to influence the situation (when a child sees how difficult it is for his mother to observe the unclear behaviour of his father, he has a common desire to help. But the only available way is simply to be there for her. But often depressed or excited adults do not pay any attention to their child. So, the kid is left without an emotional feedback, and suffers from it).
– Stress associated with misunderstandings of friends and peers (usually, children follow the beliefs of their parents or adults that have some influence on them. Thus, in a children’s group, peers often attack children of veterans with incorrect statements that they have heard from adults: “If your dad did not go to the war, there would be no war”, “Why do we pay for our dinner, and you don’t?”, “Is your father an ATO combatant? So what? Everyone has his own problems”. As a result, the child becomes withdrawn and avoids talking with friends. The festive events, parties and other fun twist the knife. After all, from the festive atmosphere of the children’s group, the child gets back home, where the emotional tension predominates, which is mostly because of the waiting. Even if his mother smiles, the child as a tuning fork catches the vibration of the anxiety and also gets anxious).
– Stress associated with a grudge against parents. (many psychologists meet the fact, that children tell about their grudge. According to their words, going to the war their parents leave them, these are the thoughts of primary and secondary school age children).
– Stress associated with the guilt. (When the father returnes from war his rehabilitation and socialization takes several years. All this time, the child does not usually understand what is happening to him, so his irritaion, aggression or sadness are often associated with his behavior. This makes the child feel guilty. His father sees a depressed child instead, and is even more hurt, being in a peaceful environment. Such a closed circle appears).
– Stress associated with the fear, as a such. (sometimes children are afraid of parents’ return from the war, since all media is telling about the deviant behavior of veterans (remember how much time the topic of ATO fighter, who hit the man who offended him with a knife was on top). And more about PTSD, uncontrolled aggression, drug addiction and alcoholism. Peaceful Ukrainian society marginalizes the image of the veteran. So, the child is afraid of his father, who returns from the military zone, and meets him with a fear. This fear is common primarily for high school age children and teenagers).
– Stress associated with the need to perform the duties of the parent, who went to war (it sounds like nothing special, but if in a city these are usual household chores, then in rural areas this can be a serious burden associated with keeping a household with a kitchen, garden and a livestock, it’s not easy, so the children of the military men, who are far from home for several years, have to grow older much earlier, than their peers).
For the children of combatants, each of these stresses manifests itself in different ways. They are added, multiplied one by one, intertwined and form a massive traumatic effect, the consequences of which remain for the rest of the life. And only a qualified psychologist can help the child understand themselves and learn to move on after this traumatic experience.
The front line of a school psychologist
In our society, there is still no culture of visiting a psychologist. People use the help of a specialist in mental health only when the situation is critical. So, the burden of the psychological support of combatants’ children naturally fell on school psycholodists’ shoulders. After all, they can spot the first signs of traumatization of children waiting for parents from the war.
“The children of veterans are not the only ones who study in our school,” says school psychologist Vitalina Shyrokova, “There are children, whose parents still fight for our country and children who have moved to our city from the occupied territories. Thus, 50 out of 1,100 students are connected with the events that are taking place in the eastern Ukraine. “It should be noted, that the families of combatants do not always announce their status. Why? According to a school psychologist, children from such families are bullied. “Children do not understand politics, they say rude things, they ask intolerant questions”, explained Ms Vitalina, “So in order it doesn’t happen, teachers inform students about the situation in the east of our country during the homerooms. School is working on patriotic education, holding patriotic events involving parents-veterans and the relatives of a boy who graduated from our school and died in the Russian-Ukrainian war. “We also recently held a Day of Dignity and Freedom. Therefore, due to the integrated approach, this problem in our school is not an acute one”.
It should be noted, that even in tight-knit classes, children of combatants need psychological support. And here the attention of teachers and the professionalism of psychologists are extremely important. “In my practice, there was a child of a combatant, and I noticed some scars on her hands,” says Vitalina Shyrokova. “Then the girl told me, that she could not sleep at night, because she was thinking about the next day, and whether her father will be in it. So, she started to deal with her physical pain by scratching herself. I asked her how long did it last? She replied, that after the fiftieth cut she stopped counting. I realized, that her father was not in touch for a long time, and the girl was suffering from emotional stress and nervous exhaustion all the time. There was also a child who fell and hid as soon as she heard a sound similar to a shot or an explosion. She did not visit the fighting zone, but in the conversation, it turned out that when the child spoke to her father on phone, there was an explosion near him and he was injured. The girl got a serious psychological trauma”.
Child’s psychological trauma associated with war is a completely new direction for school psychologists. They have not been taught how to deal with it in universities or during qualification upgrading courses. But the realities of our life require the work of specialists who are familiar with the basics of military psychology and have the skills to work with children’s psychological trauma caused by warfare in the children’s educational institutions. “Of course the training is needed for us not to make mistakes”, Ms Vitalina agrees. “Because our word can be the last, it will heal or vice versa will worsen the situation. So, when the war broke out, I was studying myself. I visited all the workshops on work with the trauma that took place in our city. Psychologists from schools in Cherkasy have applied to the Department of Education on the need for appropriate training for school psychologists. In addition, school psychologists of the city organized a professional group, where we share our problems and achievements. One of the issues raised at the meetings is the peculiarities of work with the children of combatants”.
Public associations in support
Media is pleased to provide information on the positive experience of adapting veterans in the peaceful society. That’s great. In addition, a good example should be the inspiration for other combatants. “But a significant number of veteran families separate themselves from the society”, notes the head of the “Transformation. Psychologists-volunteers community” public organization, psychologist-consultant Alla Derzhavina. “Having noticed a child’s psychological problem, the mother should immediately take him to a psychologist. But, despite our invitations, the wives of veterans with their children come very rarely. Usually, they try to solve such problems on their own. For 4 years, our organization had only 2 appeals. If they are invited within some kind of a project – they come. But they have a little desire to work with their own trauma. So, the children are usually left face to face with their emotional trauma. We have no culture to talk about it with them”.
According to Alla Derzhavina, for the children of veterans, like for their parents, it is peculiar to separate themselves from the society. They oppose themselves and their families to other children and their families. “There is often a threat of conflicts with children of so-called migrants,” said the psychologist, “They say, why his dad is here, and mine is there”. In order to pull the children’s groups together, we created a support group for teenagers. And the main message on our meetings was that all teenagers have the same problems. So, it does not matter where you came from and who your parents are. You know, it worked out. In the teams where we worked, the conflicts began to smooth over”.
In addition, in order the work in the direction of psychological support for children of combatants was fruitful, according to Alla Derzhavina, it is necessary to conduct active educational work among psychologists of educational institutions, teachers and social workers. “They lack the time and opportunity to look for information on what is happening in our society in the result of the war,” explains the specialist, “What happens to veterans and their wives, what happens to children in these families. Our society catastrophically lacks psychological education. Simple things can be heard only after attending the training. Where are the social videos, where are the billboards? However, even under such conditions, there are excellent examples of cooperation between public organizations and state social structures. So, do not wait for a miracle, just pull up the socks and work side by side at the district level”.
The state doesn’t mind getting some help. The Ministry of Social Policy of Ukraine, in response to our informational request, reported that “in cooperation with international and non-governmental organizations, the Ministry has developed and implemented a number of programs aimed at providing targeted assistance in accordance with the needs of children and also at raising the level of skills of social workers, who work with the children of ATO participants. In general, within the cooperation of the Ministry, international and non-governmental organizations, more than a thousand employees of social services have taken a further training, as a result of which more than 35 thousand families with children of ATO participants received psychological assistance”.
“Yes, indeed, there was training. The work with families is being conducted”, the head of the department of organizational and legal work of the Cherkasy Regional Center for Social Services for Children, Family and Youth Lyudmyla Pona, who works with the veterans’ families at the regional levels, comments on the situation. “But this is not enough. We have very powerful public organizations that are ready to teach and help. So, the one who searches for information, finds it. Personally, I’m following this way. Our center is currently working in this direction together with “Pobratymy” and “Blue Bird” public organizations. There is nothing to wait for. We all know, in the 5th year of the war, the state of boys when they come back home, the state of their wives, and we must understand that this chain leads to children. Indeed, there is a problem. We are aware of this and are currently looking for a way out”.
– If a member of your family had a military experience, pay special attention to your children. If you see changes in their emotional state or behaviour, do not try to solve the problem yourself, contact a specialist.
– Look for support groups for veterans in your area through the local social services for children, families and youth and through the social networks. Look for psychologists, who can deal with this exact problem.
– Find a specialist whom you really trust. In most cases, therapy for family members is not needed; it is enough for you and your child to have a place where you can calmly talk.
– Create the conditions that will allow your children to engage in creative activities. Drawing, modelling, needlework, making jewellery and charms out of ribbons and beads, any kind of art will help you and your child to distract from the routine and adapt to stress.
– Do not forget about the connection with nature. Go for a walk, for a picnic, travel together with kids. The whole family. No alcohol. It unites.
– Cuddle your children and tell you love them more often. It will give you strength and inspiration to experience all the challenges that will meet you in this difficult time.
– Your family should be proud of the fact, that their father or mother defended our country. Always. Despite everything.
Text by Yuliia Vovkodav