Psychologist Tetiana Kostenko: how to take care of yourself and your children during war

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24.11.2022
Parimatch Foundation - ig-feed-may22-35

After the start of the full-scale invasion, the life of Ukrainian families has changed dramatically. Adults with children have lost their sense of security. The following questions arise every day: how to talk to children about the war? Where to find the strength to cope with stress and continue to take care of children? How can parents take care of their emotional state and the emotional state of their children? The Parimatch Foundation international charitable foundation continues to provide answers to these questions within the framework of the Mental Health program together with psychologists and volunteers of the “Support a Child” project.

Tetiana Kostenko, a psychologist, candidate of psychological sciences, volunteer of the “Support a Child” project, talks about how to talk to children about the horrors of war and answer the questions they have, taking into account the factor of age and individual characteristics. What parents can do not to lose control over their emotions, how to restore the resources and how to save the emotional state of the child in conditions of martial law.

One morning the children woke up to the sounds of war. The war has brought changes to the life of children in terms of development, education and socialization. And they experience these changes every day. No matter how scary it may sound, children have to adapt to the new reality of life, because of the military invasion, and here, in fact, we do not have the option not to tell them the truth or to remain silent.

Psychologists advocate that no topic should be a taboo, but should be communicated in clear language to the child. The cruelty and tyranny of war are a difficult topic for explaining to children. However, we must find the right words and circumstances to explain, as safely as possible for the child’s psyche, that we live in a world where a war can happen.

Parents need to learn how to communicate in delicate and caring manner about scary things and answer the questions of children, taking into account the factor of age and individual characteristics.

It is impossible not to talk about the war. Every child woke up one day and became a child of war. Some of them were forced to leave their home and flee to a safe place with their family, some of them lost their house due to shelling and some of them lost their closest and dearest people.

What should parents keep in mind when talking to children about the war?

First of all, find out what the children already know about the war, what doubts and fears they may have, and then try to give answers. Children understand much more things than we think. As an example, to say that these are not rocket explosions but thunder is dishonest and wrong in relation to them. It is better to explain what air raid alert means and what to do if it starts.

No matter how hard and painful it may be, parents should talk to their children about the war. It is better for them to hear it from a person they trust than from other children or unknown people. Now every child needs answers and getting an understanding of what is happening.

Little children can be explained everything that is happening with the help of fairy tales, which are not only about war, but also about security. Such stories can be invented by parents, and a favorite character or a pet can be the hero of the story. Come up with a plot that resembles the current events and tell the story where everything ended well.

Answer only the questions that the child asks. For example, for children of the age of 3.5-4 years, it is important to receive information in brief manner. Answer exactly the question the child asks. Do not bring up the aspects that the child does not ask about. Remind your child that you are here for them and they can get support when it is needed. Speak out the information that the child should know in accordance with age (address, where to find the adults to turn to if the child turned out to be alone).

Children of older preschool age already attentively listen to the conversations of adults, they listen to the news and understand what is happening to some extent. Therefore, they may have more questions, which must be answered and this should be done in a calm manner. In no case can the child be frightened or get their feelings devalued.

If the child is scared, tell him: “I understand that you are scared (you need to name this emotion), but you are safe, I love you and everything is fine”. And give the child a hug. If the child does not ask questions about the war, it is not worth starting a conversation. However, children mostly notice that the usual conditions of life have changed, so the questions related to this still arise. Therefore, we need to remember the main rule: we talk to the child in a calm manner in order to convey this calmness to the child.

In the case of children of primary school age, everything should be discussed in a calm, honest and clear manner. No hiding the truth, no adding pressure to the situation and it is better not to talk about it several times a day. Especially if the children do not ask questions themselves. That is, it is enough to talk to children about safety during emergencies once and not get back to it again, otherwise everyone will experience constant stress.

However, when children ask for information, do not understand something or simply demonstrate interest, it is important to give the answers. There should be no omission, because the unknown is also scary. Without complete information from you, children may think out or find it somewhere else.

It is crucial to constantly repeat to the child that you are ready for anything, that you will never leave your child and will always protect them. Give hugs to your children often and remind them that you are here for them.

Teenagers can find more information online about what is going on than adults. And this information can be traumatic for them. After all, there is such news (which include scenes of cruelty, murders, etc.) that it is not advisable for children to watch because of the risk of trauma. Therefore, it is worth asking your child not to watch the news if they are afraid. When talking with teenagers, try to find a consensus. It is important to listen and try to understand the child. However, you should remember that you are an adult, and therefore, you make the final decision.

How to take care of the emotional state of children

It sounds terrifying, but we and our children are getting used to living in a new reality. We already know what to do in the event of an air raid alert, we have a “bug-out bag”, but we continue to live in the conditions of constant emotional stress, it is especially relevant for children. How to take care of the emotional state of children — let’s consider several options.

Avoid watching the news with children and checking social media with most of the information related to the war. What is more, try not to discuss the news with with children present.

Communicate with your child often and in an honest way. Try to be as honest as possible and share only verified facts or the information you are really sure of and what you believe yourself. Children should have an adult to turn to to discuss their fears or concerns.

Talk to the child about your feelings and emotions. In this way, you teach your child that it is okay to express different emotions. You may feel angry or upset, or be afraid of something.

Encourage children to talk about how they feel, share their experiences and feelings. Make your children feel free to ask questions and answer them as honestly and directly as possible.

Repeat constantly to the children that you are here for them, you protect them, worry about them and they are not alone.

Try to stay constantly available for the child: physically, by phone, by video call (in case you have to be away).

Hug your children as often as possible. This rule is always relevant for children of any age. But, of course, the child may not want tactile contact at some point. And this is normal, you need to respect the wish of your daughter or son.

Get into the habit of creating rituals before going to bed. It may be, for example, having a conversation or giving a hug, it may also be reading or composing fairy tales.

Teach children different ways to relieve stress:

  • screaming without scream: ask the child to try to scream but without sound
  • tearing or folding the paper
  • paper snowball game
  • drawing with pencils and paints
  • “boxing” a soft pillow
  • “scream cup” or “scream bag”: you can scream but only by directing this scream into a bag or cup
  • games with water (water can be poured from container to container) and sand.

Remember about the healthy sleep of children. Do not break the established sleep schedule, even on weekends. Wake-up time should not differ by more than 1-1.5 hours. Limit contact with screens 2 hours before bedtime. The monitors have an intense blue color, which excites the nervous system through the visual receptor. Do not give your child food or drinks containing caffeine at least 6 hours before bedtime. Encourage your child to play quiet games, such as painting together, instead of active and noisy activities before bed. Avoid having a hearty dinner before bed.

Follow the rules for nutrition. If you notice that your child is eating too much or too little, try to figure out what is wrong. To deal with eating disorder of a child, it is necessary to address the reason. Do not force feed your children. Food should bring joy. You should also not be forced to finish eating everything from your plate. You should also not force the child to eat everything from the plate. Do not punish your child with food! Do not deprive the child of food or force them to eat anything. Children should not be punished for not wanting to eat. Plan your meal schedule so that your child has time to get hungry. Keep in mind: snacking can also make you feel full.

Do not teach your child to solve problems with food or drinks. Any negative feeling should be expressed in a direct way and not suppressed with the help of food. Do not create a cult out of food. The attitude to food inside the family should be respectful, but without turning it into a cult. Do not limit your attention and care to just food when you buy treats for the child instead of spending time together and expressing love.

When picking up your child from the kindergarten or school, ask them first about what happened during the day, and only then ask them about what food they ate. The child must feel that he is loved regardless of how, when and how much he ate, that he is more important than food and the circumstances associated with it.

Statements about the appearance of the child can have a detrimental effect. It is not worth discussing the thinness, obesity or any other physical features of the child. It is also not worth making predictions about what they will look like when they grow up (fat or thin), and linking this assumption to them not being loved or being treated negatively. Do not put too much emphasis on a perfect appearance.

Dear parents, please take care of your own needs!

The support parents give to their children during these difficult times is of great importance! However, dear parents, please do not forget about your own needs! Make sure you have enough time to rest and recharge.

One of the best ways to overcome anxiety is physical activity. Just take a 15-30 minute walk through the streets of the city or go to the park. If there is no opportunity to play sports, switch your attention to a movie or a book.

If, for example, you get overwhelmed with anxiety in public transport and it is not convenient for you to read a book, take any item in your bag or pocket. This can be house keys, hold them in your hands, pay attention to their texture, color, etc., describe them in your mind.

Breathing techniques are useful for relieving anxiety and stress. Pay attention to breathing. Inhale through the nose for 2-3 seconds, hold the breath for a few seconds, then slowly exhale through the mouth.

Let go of what you can’t control and focus on finding a solution for the problems that you can tackle.

If you can’t change the situation, try changing your attitude towards it. Keep in mind that overcoming problems is a big part of our success. Worry reasonably. That is, distinguish whether the worries are healthy or harmful. If they are healthy, try to come up with a course of action. Get enough sleep and rest. From constant lack of sleep, our nervous system gets depleted. Eat well. The diet should be balanced and enriched with vitamins.
Develop a self-care plan based on your dreams, desires, values and needs.

Tips for parents when they feel like they are about to break down, but still need to control themselves in front of the child

Watch your breath. Take a deep breath, count to ten, and exhale. This calming technique really works. By getting relaxed, you will not overreact, but will make constructive decisions.

Keep a balance between strictness and rigidity. If your reaction to a child’s hysterics is screaming, the quarrel will drag on. Make it clear that you are willing to discuss the situation and compromise, but only in a calm atmosphere.

Teach yourself to evaluate not the child, but the behavior. If the child stained their clothes, this does not mean that this was done intentionally. This is just their action at a certain moment. To make it easier to accept this rule, read useful materials for parents on the “Support a Child” telegram channel.

Help your child express emotions

Help your child express emotions. The ideal scenario is to make sure that the children’s hysterics turn into a dialogue with you. Talk to your son or daughter in an honest manner. Give your child a chance to tell themselves the reason for a certain action, what were the motives, what they wanted to achieve as a result. Perhaps they really care about something, but they do not know how to tell you about it.

There can not be much praise. Teach yourself to praise your son or daughter not only for maintaining order in the room or getting a good grade, but also for the fact that they were able to convey their worries to you without hysterics. Firstly, it will allow you to create positive reinforcement for good behavior. Secondly, in this way you can prevent hysterics on the topic of “mom and dad do not notice me when I need attention.”

Put yourself in the place of your children. Think of yourself back in childhood. Didn’t you feel like getting offended, slamming the door and leaving the room when your parents refused to pay attention to you? Remember this? Now draw your conclusions!

Follow the routine inside the whole family. Go to bed on time and eat well. Not getting enough sleep and having breakfast on the run can affect your mental state — you will become irritable and nervous.

Maintain good relationships with all family members. Do not quarrel with your spouse when the children are present, do not complain about your parents or other relatives. Try to do everything possible for the childhood of your child to pass in an atmosphere of mutual understanding and love. After all, it is you who form the model of behavior that the child subconsciously takes as a foundation when creating their own family in adulthood.

 

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