Helping Ukrainian Children Find a Safe Place

By Louis Weinstock, MA, M.Sc.

Ukrainian children are living a horrible reality. As I write, the Russo-Ukrainian war that originally began in 2014 is six months into an extreme escalation after Russia’s invasion into Ukraine in February 2022. Most of the nation’s children have been displaced: More than 1.8 million children have become international refugees, and another 2.5 million have been displaced inside Ukraine.

Mental health researchers have found that “Among the consequences of war, the impact on the mental health of the civilian population is one of the most significant.” And researchers have found that this impact may be particularly detrimental to children, both in the acute phase of war and for the rest of their lives. Unicef, in its “State of the World’s Children” report in 2005, stated that repercussions can include isolation and family breakdown as well as vulnerability to malnutrition, illness, sexual violence, and other traumatic events. It notes that “A family life constitutes one of a child’s fundamental rights. War has no respect for this.”

Research such as The Longitudinal Study of War-Affected Youth has investigated the long-term mental health effects of childhood experiences such as war, and the consensus is clear: Children living through a war face both sudden and protracted trauma and, as a result, are more likely to experience mental health disorders (including anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, dissociative disorders, behavioral disorders, and substance abuse) than children who have not. These disorders are, as one report puts it, normal reactions to abnormal events, and can be immediate stress responses but can also persist after the violence has stopped.

A World Vision report released in August 2022 found that the main concern of displaced Ukrainian parents for their children is their mental health. They face challenges accessing in-person mental health services, however. There are not enough services available to meet the scale of this problem, and the nature of displaced people’s lives means that they may not be able to reach resources or to stay in one place for an extended period.

What we’re creating: A Safer Place

I’m a psychotherapist specializing in the treatment of young people experiencing grief. I’m also a writer, social entrepreneur, and creator of the charity Apart of Me, whose app has been helping children cope with grief for years. Given the unique challenges children experience in war, I seek the help of Larisa Rybyk, president of the Ukraine Psychology Association, to develop an evidence-based digital tool that enables parents and carers to work with children in war to process trauma and strengthen their resilience .

Our research has included interviews with Ukrainian mothers and with adults who grew up in war zones, as well as reviews of psychological and psychosocial studies for evidence of children’s most important needs, allowing us to formulate a plan to address them. We determined that two factors have the most bearing on successful interventions: the strength of the relationship between the adult and the child and the capacity of the adult to offer the child hope and guidance through the emotionally challenging experience of living through war.

“A Safer Place” is the result: a mobile game for children 5-11 years old and their carers, which will be free for them to download in the Google Play and Apple App Stores. It offers an engaging forest world in which they work together along a narrative and strengthen their relationship, building psychological resources with which to navigate the real world. The game has been tested with our Ukrainian partners.

The design philosophy is based upon the core belief that digital tools work best when they help build more healing relationships in the real world. And so, A Safer Place sets exercises that are done together off-screen; the players report back to see and to be encouraged by their progress.

Why it works: Grounded in research

The tool is not only based on research but facilitates play, which signals safety to the nervous system. It is centered on the proven power of parent-child co-regulation and acknowledgment that humans are social creatures who need other to help regulate the nervous system and feel safe. It also incorporates knowledge that using stories can make it easier to talk about, and work through, difficult issues, especially for children.

I don’t have the power to stop war, or to turn back time—but my goal is to help millions of children and the adults who love them find some light, healing, and hope in troubling times. You can find more information here.

Louis Weinstock, MA, M.Sc., is a child and family psychotherapist with more than 20 years’ experience. He is the author of How the World Is Making Our Children Mad and What to Do About It, the co-author with his wife of The Inner Beauty Bible: Mindful Rituals to Nourish Your Soul, the founder of charity Apart of Me, and the creator of A Safer Place, a mobile game to help children and their parents and carers who are experiencing trauma and loss during the war in Ukraine.

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