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“When she hears a loud noise, she drops to the floor covering her head with her hands”. War's effect on children in Ukraine

The devastating invasion of Ukraine has claimed the lives of at least 500 Ukrainian children, with hundreds more forcibly taken by Russian authorities from the occupied territories for adoption or enrollment in 'reeducation' facilities. This prolonged war, which for many commenced as early as 2014, has inevitably left a deep imprint on the mental well-being of tens of thousands of children. Some startle at the slightest noise, gripped by a pervasive fear of air raid sirens, while others, despite their fear, fiercely protect their cherished toys, swap military badges, and strive to exhibit a resilience surpassing that of the adults. The Insider conducted interviews with psychologists, parents, and the children themselves to shed light on the profound psychological impact the war has wrought upon them.

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Content
  • Perception of war: “Children used to dream of a goldfish or the sea, but now they dream of Putin's death”

  • “My eldest daughter had studied tactical medicine and she performed surgery on her wounded brother, the ambulance wouldn't have reached us.” A story told by a mother of multiple children in Rubizhne

  • PTSD: “After the evacuation, she was frightened by any loud sounds, even the slamming of a car door”

  • Offering help: “Put the oxygen mask on first before assisting the child”

Perception of war: “Children used to dream of a goldfish or the sea, but now they dream of Putin's death”

Georgiy Ivanchenko, a military photojournalist, has been documenting events from the frontlines since the onset of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. He recounts what he's witnessed in a composed manner, but when the conversation turns to children, his tone changes: “I believe these children will emerge from this war either disoriented and mentally drained or exceptionally resilient.”

“In Bakhmut, I often asked children to draw their future homes on pieces of paper. One boy, Stas, sketched a multi-story building with curved, wavy windows. I asked him about it, and he simply said they were broken windows. Another intriguing detail in his drawing was a pipe – it turned out to be a heating chimney.”

The air raid siren sounds as I interview Georgiy Ivanchenko, but he continues to speak unfazed, rolling a cigarette with precision.

“In Izyum, young hearts recount tales of scaling hills and witnessing the city's shelling, an experience resembling a scene unfolding on a television screen. In our own childhood, we avidly collected Spider-Man cards and stickers; yet, these children bear witness to the relentless shelling, collecting scattered badges, engaging in trades, and building their own makeshift 'checkpoints'. I vividly recall passing through one of these 'checkpoints' roughly ten kilometers from Soledar. Two young siblings, armed with wooden guns, sticks, and flags, stood there. Each morning, they faithfully displayed sheets of paper adorned with the Ukrainian flag. Their offerings held handwritten prayers and poems by their mother, extended to passing soldiers. I possess one of these poignant sheets. The first time I unfolded it and read the heartfelt words, tears welled up, and I couldn't contain my emotions.”
The boy called David (wearing protective goggles) exchanging military badges with his friends at the “checkpoint”
The boy called David (wearing protective goggles) exchanging military badges with his friends at the “checkpoint”
Photo by Georgiy Ivanchenko

Family psychologist Evgenia Savchenko explains how art therapy helps children cope with their emotions:

“Children express their fears through drawings. We always make time for this - sometimes creating our own rituals. For instance, children believe that by burning the drawing, their fears will diminish.”

As fear transforms into vibrant pictures, it subsides, and the memory of what they've witnessed becomes less tangible. However, the world around children doesn't transform into something fantastical; even the youngest among them can differentiate between fantasy and reality.

According to Savchenko, although children comprehend what is happening, they struggle to understand why. The crucial point is not to nurture aggression in the child, a trait they often adopt from adults, mirroring their behavior and thoughts:

“Children undoubtedly understand that there is a war underway. They comprehend that when the alarm sounds, they must seek refuge in the basement. However, what children fail to grasp is why someone attacked us after a peaceful and tranquil life, and why that someone is Russia. I often conduct sessions titled 'Your Dreams' to help the child understand that what's happening around them is temporary and that the world is not as menacing as they currently perceive it. In the past, children dreamt of a goldfish or the sea, but now they dream of Putin's death. The pivotal aspect is to comprehend that these thoughts don't materialize out of thin air; children bring them from home. My son is six years old, and he once asked me to buy him a toy weapon. When I inquired 'why do you need it,' he simply expressed a desire to shoot Putin.”
Ukrainian-Polish project “Mom, I Don't Want War.” From the catalog of children's drawings about the war in Ukraine
Ukrainian-Polish project “Mom, I Don't Want War.” From the catalog of children's drawings about the war in Ukraine

“My eldest daughter had studied tactical medicine and she performed surgery on her wounded brother, the ambulance wouldn't have reached us.” A story told by a mother of multiple children in Rubizhne

Irina, a mother of multiple children residing in the city of Rubizhne, Luhansk region, recounts how each of her children, regardless of age, processes the distressing experiences they've been through. The memories of enduring a month of shelling have left a lasting impact on each child, resurfacing from time to time:

“In 2014, it was terrifying and hard to grasp, but by 2022, we were all well informed and understood the situation. So when we heard the explosions on the 24th, my husband's initial words were, “Again.” The children, having already lived through one war, rushed to us, frightened.
The shelling began on March 8 - initially in the northern part of the city, then spreading to our neighborhoods. We were positioned just 50 meters from the demarcation line, in what was known as the gray zone. The front line was practically at our doorstep. As soon as the Ukrainian checkpoint was set up, Russia began massive shelling. There were days when our area changed hands 5-6 times.
Irina's children in evacuation in the Ivano-Frankivsk region
Irina's children in evacuation in the Ivano-Frankivsk region
Initially, we assumed it would conclude as swiftly as in 2014: they would capture us quickly, and just as quickly release us, so we calculated our provisions of food and water and estimated how long we could endure. We decided to wait until our people returned. But then, shells began raining down on us. Their numbers escalated. The children could now discern by sound the type of shell in flight, how many 'Grads' were flying past - 12 or 20, and which type of bomb was dropped - regular or vacuum. They could identify everything by the sound.
The children could now discern by sound the type of shell in flight, how many 'Grads' were flying past — 12 or 20, and which type of bomb was dropped — regular or vacuum
We rarely emerged from the basement—only during brief lulls for weapon reloading, allowing us to quickly use the toilet or spend a moment outside to warm up.
Once, a mortar shell landed in our yard but didn't detonate—it fell near the street toilet. We had to use our neighbors' restroom because we were extremely afraid it might explode at any moment.
I am a mother of 10 children, and whenever shelling occurred, all of them would hurriedly retreat to the basement within 15 seconds; the older ones would swiftly assist the younger ones. They gradually adjusted to the situation, although getting used to something constantly flying above your head is hard. The sudden bursts of sound scared the children a lot—an abrupt sound of thunder that felt as if something might collapse on them. Low-flying planes were also a source of fear. We endured a month of shelling.
On March 19, my 12-year-old son, Misha, was wounded. A shell flew in during the night: it shattered the window, passed through the room, broke the interior doors, traversed another room, and struck Misha's shoulder, which was protruding from under the blanket. Thankfully, due to the layers of clothing and a thick blanket, the impact was not severe. The wound was sizable but not deep, and we managed to handle it ourselves. My eldest daughter had studied tactical medicine and could conduct minor surgeries. Moreover, we had no other alternative—emergency services would not have reached us.”
We did the surgery ourselves. My eldest daughter had studied tactical medicine, and we had no other alternative—emergency services would not have reached us
After that injury, we decided to leave because the shelling was relentless. Our goal was to reach an evacuation point located eight kilometers away from our home. However, we had to make half of this journey amidst shelling. Evacuating all 14 of us was a daunting task, and nobody was available or willing to assist in such a perilous area. What came to our aid was nothing short of a miracle. At a certain moment, a person who identified himself as a military chaplain called me and mentioned that he had recently facilitated evacuations in our area. He offered to come for us, and he did. We successfully evacuated with the children, while my husband and father bravely chose to remain and protect our home. Little did we know that this ordeal would persist for an unexpectedly long duration.
Just four days later, we received the devastating news that our house had been subjected to shelling, resulting in the tragic loss of my husband. Shells relentlessly pounded our roof, with over 15 impacting the structure. When circumstances allow, I aspire to return there. Perhaps luck will be on my side, and I will find something tangible, something to give a proper farewell.
The children are grappling profoundly with this situation. The older ones internalize their emotions, yet the youngest, Yarik, continually reminisces about his father. We chose not to disclose the news of his father's passing; instead, we informed him that his dad has become a tiny star in the sky, watching over us. We explained that he has become our guardian angel. This revelation is painful for him. He frequently invents moments with his father and weaves imaginative tales. One day, he said, “Mom, let's ask God to bring dad back from the sky to the earth.”
My son says, “Mom, let's ask God to bring dad back from the sky to the earth”
Occasionally, he muses, “Dad is in the sky, hiding from the bad guys. He'll wait until they depart, and then he'll return to us.”

PTSD: “After the evacuation, she was frightened by any loud sounds, even the slamming of a car door”

Even when in a place of safety, children continue to endure the psychological aftermath of shelling, bombings, and death. While children often manage these experiences better than adults, for many, it remains a profound struggle, as described by Yevgenia Savchenko:

“In Kherson, I worked with a six-year-old girl who bore witness to a severe shelling incident at Antonov Bridge—she was traveling with her family in a convoy during the evacuation. Thankfully, no one in her family was physically harmed, but now she grapples with an intense fear of loud noises—she drops to the floor, covering her head with her hands, shivering, and in tears.”

Yevgenia's own children were caught in shelling during an attempt to leave Kherson, and even in their new city, they hesitated to venture outside for some time:

“The youngest wouldn't let me out of his sight for a second and was deeply fearful when he heard the barking of dogs—in Kherson, dogs would always start barking before an airstrike.”

Kherson resident Lyudmila affirms that even after they relocated to a safe haven, the children's panicked reactions did not abate:

“When we were liberated, the shelling commenced—a projectile landed directly on the road near our house. The child was standing on the couch, witnessed something in flight, and let out a scream. My husband promptly yelled, 'Everyone to the corridor!'—and we heard the windows in our home shattering. We spent the entire night in the corridor, yet even when the chaos subsided, the children were afraid to retire to bed and sleep independently, continuously tearful, expressing how terrifying it was.
Even after we moved from Kherson to Western Ukraine, the children's fear persisted. On one occasion, we went to the city, and an <air raid – The Insider> alarm sounded—the eldest child immediately spiraled into panic, shouting, 'They're going to bomb us now! Quick, to the shelter!'“
A child's toy in Borodianka, 2002
A child's toy in Borodianka, 2002
Metin Aktas, Anadolu Agency

The fear of loud noises isn't limited to young children—it affects teenagers as well. Seventeen-year-old Sasha Stukalo from Lysychansk recounts how he, despite already enduring the war in 2014, developed an overwhelming fear of air raid alarms after a rocket landed in his house's yard in March 2022:

“I first faced the war back in 2014, I was just nine. Everything seemed normal that day until a shockingly loud noise shattered the peace—the roar of fighter jets closing in on our city. We got scared and dashed to the basement as the shelling began. I remember vividly stepping out of the building, frozen in my tracks, waiting for my sister to grab her things. Then, out of nowhere, a fighter jet zoomed by and let loose a rocket, hitting a house nearby.
Later, we spent about two weeks in the basement until we were evacuated to nearby Severodonetsk. We stayed there for approximately a month, and upon learning of Lysychansk's liberation, we returned. After my parents' passing, I left the city. <Sasha's mother died from a stroke in 2014, and his father passed away in 2017 — The Insider>.
I had a hunch that the war would return. What struck me the most was discovering that the Russian army was advancing its equipment towards Ukraine's borders.
Just before the war began, I resided in a rehab center. They were planning to move me to a different place, an orphanage, and for that, a medical check-up was necessary. During this check-up, they found out I had caught the coronavirus and had to admit me to the hospital. That's where I witnessed the start of the war. Memories from 2014 came rushing back, and I was engulfed in fear, shaking to the core.
I was in the hospital for two weeks, and after that, they sent me to this family-like place. We were walking to the house with the other kids on this little path, and suddenly, rockets zipped past us. Four of them landed super close. We all just dived to the ground, and, thank goodness, we all made it through. And then came this thing that messed with my head the most.
We all huddled in to sleep—lots of little kids around. It was super quiet and dark, and then out of nowhere, this rocket whizzed in, making this ear-splitting whistle as it crashed into the yard. It was crazy loud. When we went out, we sadly found a dog in the yard that got hurt real bad. That moment kicked off my fear of those air raid alarms.
After a rocket landed in our yard and killed a dog I started fearing air raid alarms
At first, we would huddle in the hallway to escape the shelling. But when a rocket crashed into our yard, we fled to the basement, where we stayed for a whole month, not daring to step outside. Our neighborhood was constantly under attack, and our chance of survival came from the kindness of humanitarian aid and the helping hands of volunteers from nearby shelters who brought us food and clothes.
In that basement, we tried to keep ourselves busy. Some played games, others read, and we all tried to make the best out of the situation. When the power occasionally flickered on, we hurriedly charged our phones. But then, the power station was hit, plunging us into darkness for what felt like an eternity.
After a month in that dim basement, we were evacuated to Lviv. Even there, we couldn't escape the sound of shells piercing the air. Once, a warehouse close to our shelter took a direct hit. Slowly, I adjusted to this new reality and began to worry more about the little ones, trying my best to comfort them, which strangely eased my own fears.
However, the fear still lingers. Any sudden sound, even just the blare of a siren, startles us. Dormitories are often targeted, and now I study and live in one. Nightmares haunt my sleep, but I find solace in music—I pour my emotions into songwriting, and it soothes my soul.
We all yearn for a peaceful sky above us and the ability to sleep without worry. However, the reality of war robs us of that peace. While I'm in Lviv, I anticipate only one thing—the liberation of my city, which is currently under occupation. When it's freed, I'll be able to return home.
Recently, we experienced a bombing here, and the whole of Levandivka was engulfed in smoke. You step outside and realize that you slept peacefully, but others weren't as fortunate, and some will never wake up. You look at the smoke and think, “Thank goodness I wasn't there.” And your heart goes out to those who were”.
You step outside and realize that you slept peacefully, but others weren't as fortunate, and some will never wake up

This response is a common symptom of PTSD. Even after the attacks, people of all ages remain frightened by loud noises and tumult. Despite their fear, some children try to shield their cherished toys. Daria, a resident of Kherson, shares an example:

“My goddaughter was very frightened by the explosions. Whenever she heard them, she would clutch her toys and rush to the hallway. There, she had fashioned a bed with pillows, covering herself entirely with a blanket, attempting to conceal all her bunnies and bears. In the initial weeks after leaving, she was deeply afraid of any loud sounds—door slams or car horns. We hope that as she grows older, she will gradually move past this.”

The process of evacuation itself can also instigate psychological trauma in children, according to experts. The notion that they might never see their home again is profoundly hard for children to grasp, as noted by psychologist Evgenia Savchenko:

“For instance, my son still doesn't communicate with his grandmothers who remained in Kherson. One is still living under occupation, and the other is not, but he is unwilling to call either of them. I realized that these memories are very taxing for him, and he is fearful of them. So, I said I wouldn't push him—let him talk to them when he's ready, and it will be less burdensome for him.”

To help a child endure the stress of parting with their home, a beloved toy or a pet can provide solace, says child psychologist Valentina Chaika:

“Children experience the separation during evacuation in a very poignant manner, especially if it involves their friends or pets. They can connect with friends online, but this is insufficient. When they have a friend or a pet close by, a child can always engage in play and divert their attention. The situation where children are deprived of this causes frustration and resentment.”
Anya, a young girl, is preparing for evacuation to Kharkiv with her doll, Angelina
Anya, a young girl, is preparing for evacuation to Kharkiv with her doll, Angelina
Photo: Georgiy Ivanchenko

Journalist Ivanchenko recounts a memorable incident from his travels:

“We were in Sharivka. There, I met a girl named Anya. She was preparing for evacuation, set to be picked up the next day. She stood by the house, clutching her doll in her hands. She told me the doll's name was Angelina. And when we were about to leave after fifteen minutes, she unexpectedly reached into her pocket and pulled out a live hamster, saying, 'Here's my hamster, his name is Rogue.' I was left speechless.”

Offering help: “Put the oxygen mask on first before assisting the child”

Despite the shock and stress, children are less likely to suffer severe psychological trauma from what they witness compared to adults. Their psyche is more resilient, says psychologist Valentina Chaika, adding that time is needed for trauma to manifest:

“Children possess a more protected and stable psyche. The severe PTSD seen in, for example, soldiers, is almost nonexistent in children. Trauma in them may only manifest over time and in small bursts. When a child starts to feel uneasy, the key is to stay close, distract them, and provide a sense of safety. If adults push the child away when they need support and explanations about what's happening, the child will clam up. I had a girl, she lost her grandfather, grandmother, and mother. But, you know, children quickly adapt to the situation and can return to normal life within a few months. Of course, the residue will always remain; the pain from such losses won't go away. However, experiencing these traumas in childhood is much easier than in adulthood.”
Experiencing these traumas in childhood is much easier than in adulthood

Psychologist Evgenia Savchenko emphasizes that the healing process significantly relies on parental actions, underscoring the importance of maintaining their own psychological well-being:

“If an unstable adult is present around the children, no amount of psychological sessions can truly assist them. There have been instances where a child processed their fears during therapy, only to return home to adults still immersed in stress, reigniting the process. Hence, the key is stabilizing the adult to effectively aid their child.
Occasionally, mothers approach me perplexed by their child's uncharacteristic behavior. I always inquire about their own well-being. Typically, this prompts them to tear up and express their thoughts. I stress that if they are struggling personally, what kind of support can they provide their children? It's akin to the airplane scenario: secure your own mask first before assisting the child.
In addition to intense aggression, children often exhibit regressions. Some, particularly the younger ones, forget their toilet training. Others, who were once active and talkative, begin communicating minimally. The challenge is that parents fail to recognize the need for seeking assistance in such situations. Many simply doubt the effectiveness of psychotherapy, to the detriment of their children.”

Psychologist Valentina Chaika suggests that displaying genuine emotions in front of children is a prudent approach during wartime. This fosters empathy and encourages children to empathize, a critical need in such trying circumstances:

“There's no need to conceal your emotions because, in these situations, how can we expect sincerity from our children? Rather, we should show the child that all emotions and states are perfectly normal. If mom feels scared, it's okay to show it; if mom cries, it's natural, and there's no negativity in that. By guiding a child through their emotions, they start learning empathy — a tremendously valuable skill. If a child witnesses their parents or loved ones going through a tough time, expressing empathy becomes a natural response. Hence, it's crucial to demonstrate to children what it means to be empathetic.”

However, it's crucial to ensure that the children themselves feel heard and understood by their loved ones, Chaika says:

“The most harrowing aspect for children during times of war is feeling unheard. In moments of deep shock, a child may struggle to articulate their needs clearly. They might resort to crying, screaming, or speaking just to be left alone. In emotionally charged situations, both children and adults can express themselves in unexpected ways. That's why it's essential to remain composed. If a child has experienced a traumatic event involving their loved ones, such as witnessing a death, it's critical to allow the child to release their emotions and then seek professional help promptly. The key here is not to waste any time. The experiences can embed deeply in a child's psyche, potentially leading to tragic consequences. There are numerous techniques and exercises, guided by a specialist, that allow individuals to process the experience, preventing the accumulation of negative emotions.”

To support the child, various tactile exercises, sculpting, and appliqué can be utilized, Chaika adds:

“I recommend letting the child draw, sculpt, or engage in hands-on creative activities. It could be sculpting, appliqué work, using colorful stickers, or playing finger games. Drawing with sand on glass can also have a very calming effect on children. Don't overlook tactile exercises like hugs or massages. When the weather is warm, spending time outside with the child can be beneficial. Nature often acts as a form of meditation. You can teach the child breathing exercises that they can use later to calm themselves. Moreover, you don't have to be constantly by their side; simply engage in your own activities nearby so that the child can observe your emotions. Always show genuine interest in what your children are doing. This greatly soothes them, lifts their spirits, and assists them in dealing with their anxiety.”

Psychologist Evgeniya Savchenko also emphasizes the importance of refraining from scolding children for their unusual behavior:

“Children don't scream without a reason; there's something bothering them. In such circumstances, our role as parents is to support rather than exacerbate their distress. The 'three-minute rule' is remarkably effective, wherein a parent dedicates at least three minutes every day to give undivided attention to their child—hug them, kiss them, play with them. Despite the ongoing war, it remains crucial to stay interested in their day, ask questions—children are currently grappling with a severe lack of attention, as parents, dealing with their own stress, may not be as available as before.”

Moreover, despite the harrowing experiences they've endured, children often exhibit resilience beyond their years and try to offer emotional support to their family if they sense the need. This profoundly struck Czech journalist Vojtech Bogach during his time in Ukraine:

“In Makarov, I encountered a woman in a basement with her daughter and son. As she recounted their story through tears—of losing their home to a fire—their twelve-year-old daughter hugged her mother, taking over the narrative when her mother was overcome with emotions. The young girl began speaking about her grandfather and grandmother, still trapped under the rubble, and she too started weeping. In that very moment, her younger brother, only a few years her junior, chimed in, highlighting the fact that they were now homeless. It became evident to me how traumatic this was for the children, yet they exhibited an innate understanding that they needed to be strong, holding back their tears.”

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