Psykologspesialist, Foredragsholder, Prosjektleder, Sakkyndig
Alarms are ringing for the children of Ukraine, not only in Norway, but in most of Europe.
I write this because the children who have come to us, and to many other countries, as refugees, live under a harsher sky than many other children who have had to flee before them.
I write because they are fleeing with their mother to survive, while their father remains to fight the war, – and maybe risks dying.
Seen through the eyes of child psychology, there are two new main challenges with which we have very little previous experience:
How to support mothers while they maintain contact with home. And secondly, how to deal with the worst imaginable, when fathers have fallen on the battlefield or died in rocket attacks?
As usual, we have to start somewhere, to think, and then share our thoughts with each other. We have to find means of structuring our approach so we establish direct contact with the mothers and thereby with their children. And this primarily without age limits.
One of the most important experiences I have to share from my many years of parental guidance to refugees is that nearly all of them feel insecure about “the Norwegian openness” in communication with children.
“You talk to children about everything,” they say when they’ve been here for a while.
And this is true for other Scandinavian and European countries as well.
I have learned that it is helpful to be humble at this point, and not demanding or insistent. We need to listen to how their children have already expressed themselves in these situations before we give advice. What have children of different ages said about the fact that their mothers have fled, and their fathers and grandfathers were held back to be ready to fight the war? What have they understood – and at what age? Here we meet the need to differentiate for different age groups. From my experience with Bosnian, Kosovo Albanian, Afghan, Iraqi, Kurdish, and other refugee children, the oldest boys aged 12 and over, are those most well-informed, either through what they have heard or spoken about directly, most having been asked by younger children to talk about what they know. Or through boasting to younger children about what they have heard or been told.
Advice number 1: Listen to Mum and support anything she may have said to children of different ages that you think is helpful for them. Look for specific examples. Refer (without mentioning names) to good examples other mothers you have spoken to have used. Write down good examples.
Advice number 2: Provide yourself with detailed insight into how mothers remain connected to the home in Ukraine – at what time, place, how, (eg., by mobile, online, images directly transmitted while the father is talking), where the children are when this information is given, what happens next, what the father says that is supportive for the children. Make your own assessments while you are listening but be initially careful not to be critical if you get upset by what you hear about how they deal with the situation. Find out more about the children’s access to and use of news, particularly from news channels in Ukraine.
We are likely to come across accounts of heroic efforts of fathers and the damage they have inflicted on the enemy. My instinct tells me that such graphic accounts are not for children. We should be concerned about how conditions can facilitate child protection, for example in reception centers. And about how we communicate our advice in a way that promotes a common attitude and language.
If we have the right conditions, with access to an interpreter, it is helpful to bring mothers together in smaller supervision groups. Structured leadership would then be important, and probably would be best done not alone, to ensure all details in the conversation are noticed. In a careful way, you can say that it is good for children to talk about what they are afraid of, about bad memories and thoughts that bother them.
It’s about listening so children feel comfortable about talking and talking so children will listen!
It’s not harmful for children to talk about their experiences, and it’s not wrong of us to encourage them and listen. Experts in the field have recently noted that it might be good for children to talk to several different people about traumatic events. For example, it can be helpful for older children to write a memory book, or write letters to their Dad or others. Helping children to speak about and express difficult feelings is an emotional first aid kit.
Should the child talk to their Dad?
The immediate answer, is of course, yes. It is however useful for the mother to talk about and get advice on what she can ask the father not to say directly to the children (i.e., horrific details). I would advise the mother to have a a conversation with the father before she and the children speak to the father.
It is also my instinct that a mother should always hear what the children are talking to their father about. It is my experience, that children do not remember what is said if their parents cry or otherwise get upset. (This may apply to children as young as 10 years of age). They just remember how upset the parent(s) were.
Now the situation in Ukraine is such that not only fathers but also others the children know may die in the war. Death notification should therefore also be structured so that there is some degree of predictability and follow-up, depending on how close these people were to the child. A minimum requirement is that we plan together with the mother how to convey the “very worst” to children, so that bad news is not randomly heard from others, or without parental support.
I have no knowledge of whether it will be possible to reunite badly injured but transportable fathers with their families.
The refugee situation for the around 4 million Ukrainian mothers and children is so special that we lack both models and practical examples that can make us better helpers. Ongoing communication and sharing of experience is therefore of utmost importance.
Fortunately there are many agencies and sources of guidance on talking to children of different ages about war and other difficult issues. Available information can be found both online and among professionals in the local municipalities’ crisis teams or health care workers. In addition, different countries should mobilize expertise in the follow-up of trauma reactions, providing treatment groups for children as well as screening to access more individualized and appropriate help for individuals and adults.
All children are our children.
Teksten var først publisert på norsk hos Dagsavisen 22. april 2022.
Tusen takk til Melanie Young for engelsk oversettelse.