Recommendations on how to help children children with special needs to cope with war stress

First we would like to emphasize that even though these recommendations were written for families with children with special needs, a lot of children without any diagnosis might benefit from them. Please adapt these recommendations based on your individual circumstances.

Things like war adversities, losses, forced relocation, for some people it is their very first relocation, unpredictable events (stimuli) might be seen as quite aversive by people affected by war. Both groups of people, those who stay in their home countries and those who relocate, are facing many complications that must be solved in a very short period of time. They need to adjust to a new reality, which takes a lot of time. Some need to learn new languages, which is quite difficult to do for children with developmental disabilities. Living in a host family might also present various challenges; for example, they need to learn how to live together, communicate with each other, and adopt new ways of living. The host family also faces a tough situation, needing to spend more resources on the stabilization of those arriving.

People affected by war go through changes in socio-economic status and broken rituals, which is especially painful for people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities. They have to leave behind beloved places, close people, familiar toys and other dear items. For children with ASD broken rituals and unpleasant stimuli (such as loud noises during moving, new food etc) can be a huge stressor too, which is usually displayed in the form of behavioral problems. Families need to deal with a lot of paperwork, find schools and therapy for children, and so on and so forth.

This lack of stability and unpredictable future put people under risk of maladjustment.

Some have a good number of protective factors, like multiple languages, having family members living in a host country, or having a big support group. However, they still need quite a significant amount of time and support to adjust to their new reality, because too many thoughts and feelings need to be digested. People can only process so much in such a short time.

It is difficult to stabilize the state of children at the emotional, social, and behavioral levels without stabilizing the emotional, behavioral, and social state of their parents. Children pick up on the emotional state of their parents. The sooner parents can stabilize their own condition, the more chances children have to adapt to the new reality and change. Therefore, it is important to model/demonstrate adaptive behaviors that children can copy and apply in their everyday life.

Therefore we want to emphasize again how important it is to provide self-care first. Look at the recommendations for adults and caregivers for some ideas that might help you. Try to be that calm person the child can lean upon. Parents often experience the same fears as their children. But if parents can remain calm when a child panics, it will help calm them down. If the parents panics, it will make the child feel even more scared. It is important to reduce ongoing exposure to stressors to prevent development of secondary traumas.

There are many actions parents can take to help children deal with fears they might experience.You are probably already doing everything you can. We hope that these recommendations will give you more ideas on how to stabilize your child or children. Keep in mind that everyone’s situation is different and you might need to adapt the recommendations to better suit your individual circumstances. Though none of these recommendations will completely eliminate fear, they can help a child navigate through a scary world.

Physical Safety

First of all, we should do our best to avoid additional traumatisation by creating a very friendly and supportive atmosphere. As many children with special needs tend to increase challenging behavior when they are disturbed by surrounding stimuli (events or items), we should think about many aspects;parents can guide us as they know their children best. The most wide-spread issues to think about ispleasant enlightenment - probably using window blinds or curtains, and reducing noise. Low-volume sounds help us to concentrate and provide emotional well-being. For example, white noise generators can be used to increase dopamine secretion and increase learning cognition capacities. Small pauses and breathing practices are also useful for helping children digest what is happening around them and therefore feel more in control. Try to reduce ongoing exposure to stressors.

Headphones or earplugs. Due to the nature of war your child might benefit from wearing headphones or earplugs. This might help reduce exposure to war-related noises and help the child better cope with stress.

Self-stimulating behaviors. It is no secret that children with ASD and other neurodevelopmental disabilities can have additional sensory problems, reinforced by additional stress. Your child already uses many forms of self-stimulation in everyday life as a coping strategy or as a way to express emotions. Parents should be prepared for the fact that the number/intensity/amplitude of these self-stimulating activities may increase.

Given the unpredictable nature of the military events, is it expected to see an explosion of sensory behaviors. Forbidding and suppressing these natural reactions to what is happening around might worsen the emotional burden. Think about how you can still let the child engage in self-stimulating activities but in a more socially acceptable way. Can you find alternative behaviors? The child may be overly active, run, scream, destroy, break everything, the child may show aggression. How can you still let your child express all these emotions, but in a more acceptable way? What are the alternatives that best fit your child?

In case of persistent auto-stimulations (hitting objects, intense movements such as swinging or extreme vocalizations, etc.) you might find it helpful to redirect children towards other sensory activities instead of trying to stop the current self-stimulating behaviors. For example, vocalizations can disappear with singing or listening to music; hitting objects is reduced when hands are busy with other sensory toys; or is there a way to find something appropriate to hit?

In order to reduce anxiety and socially unacceptable behavior, you can incorporate sensory toys and games in your routine. Can you include anything from below into your child’s activities?

  • kinetic sand, ready playdough or salty dough/corn dough (can be made at home and does not contain gluten)

  • any games with water (playing with objects in a pan, pouring water)

  • games with grains (looking for hidden treasures in buckwheat, lentils, rice or measuring grains and pouring them from one container into another)

  • any games with respiration (breath to make object move and fall from a surface)

  • wrinkle and tear off paper (for example, old newspapers), throwing them into a bin

  • making a tent with blankets to let a child hide himself in case of sensory overwhelming

  • putting a child in a blanket/shit/towels...and make deep massage to all body parts, especially feet and legs

  • listening to classical music

  • taking soothing baths or showers

There might be things or activities that you might want to reduce exposure to. For example:

  • exposure to excessive noise (is there a way to use earplugs?)

  • some songs (are there songs that increase anxiety in your child?)

  • excessive time spent on gadgets

Sensory toys and activities should give the child opportunities to explore and better understand their body and express emotions. Engaging in sensory activities and playing with sensory toys is often a normal human need in stressful situations which helps to reduce feelings of stress.

Read more about healthy diet and progressive muscle relaxation in the recommendations for adults here.

Psychological Safety

Visual prompts can help children to predict what is about to happen or what they need to do. Visual pictograms that can be easily individualized in order to introduce daily routine to the child, help him/her to better understand what he/she is expected to do, and to support his/her understanding of spoken language, especially in a new linguistic environment.

Using these pictures can be very comforting for children with special needs. These pictograms can be organized into a visual schedule or be used for one activity only. In this case we can also use any visual scheme “First + picture, then + picture” of the desired reward or next activity to motivate the child to do something. Such images are often used for “do and don’t” rules posters in order to enhance socially desired behavior and are used as constant visual prompts in various settings. You can use them with reinforcement for every step or for following all the rules or. With time, when implemented correctly, following these rules might become reinforcing.

Schedule. Make the pre-war schedule and stick to it as much as possible. The schedule must be achievable. This could be the schedule the child used to have during the weekend, or it could be the weekend schedule or both. See what you can realistically accomplish to the best of your ability and resources. This will increase your child's chances to succeed at accomplishing tasks and feel good about them. It is very important to wake up, go to bed, and eat at the same time. The more you bring predictability to your child's daily routine, the easier it will be for both you and your child to feel stable and secure.

For example, you can create a visual schedule. It can be drawn by hand and verbalized to your child out loud. If it is not possible to create a visual schedule, say it out loud and give prompts (physical, gestural, modeling) to help your child to execute the planned activities.

The schedule and prompts should be easy to understand and easy to follow. It is important not only to show the child a visual schedule but also to verbalize it to him/her.

Behavior chains. Sometimes it is difficult for a child to execute certain behaviors. Behavior chains might be a good help here. The idea is to cut an action into very small steps, first with visual or verbal or physical prompts, and then to help the child to do the whole chain on their own. This is a perfect opportunity to learn a new skill or to improve the quality of the procedure.

Let's look at the example of quenching thirst, where a child needs to pour herself/himself water from a bottle.

  1. Take a mug (or another object that can act as a mug)

  2. Place it on a safe surface (table)

  3. Take a bottle

  4. Carry the bottle to the mug

  5. Flip the bottle towards the mug

  6. Pour water without spilling over the rim of the mug

  7. Place the bottle on a safe surface

  8. Close the bottle

  9. Drink water

Here is an example of behavior chain with visual and text support

Rituals. Routine. Chores. A visual schedule can act as a ritual for a child as well. It is something that repeats day after day and brings a sense of stability.

Rituals include any actions that are repeated from day to day in the daily life of a child. You can use a visual schedule to help your child perform a ritual as well. Let’s look at the bedtime routine as a ritual. When it's time to go to bed, you let your child know about it, and then they follow a certain chain of actions. For example:

  1. a child puts on pajamas;

  2. takes dirty clothes to the dirty laundry bin;

  3. brushes their teeth;

  4. washes their face;

  5. goes to bed;

  6. hugs mom

  7. listens to a story read aloud by mom.

Rituals have an important function in a child's life - they form certain habits, daily routines, or the order in which certain actions are performed. There is one more important function that rituals can serve - trauma prevention. Rituals give a child with ASD peace of mind because he/she knows in advance what is going to happen next and what he/she should do.

It is the predictability piece that helps people to feel that they can handle life. You should not make everything predictable and robotic but some predictability helps. At the end of the day it is too time consuming and that is why it is exhausting for the brain to constantly evaluate the surroundings and create new plans of action all the time. We need to give our brain some time to take a break, where the brain does not need to constantly recalculate the course of action but can work in an autopilot mode on something enjoyable or relaxing.

In a situation when you are not at home due to martial law, but in a bomb shelter or in a temporary residence, try to support the typical schedule of the child's day and their rituals as much as possible

Including your child in a daily routine (set a table, clean a table, throw out trash, load a washing machine, water flowers, etc.) might also help you and them to shift attention from the war atrocities to something more manageable and still very important. The repetitive nature of rituals creates a sense of predictability and therefore might serve as a coping strategy with stress. Not every child is able to perform these tasks on their own. In this case the job of an adult is to provide the help (prompts) to the child to learn to perform different tasks.

Teaching your child a chore is also a way to create one more opportunity to spend time together in a healthy way. So, stay positive and supportive for your child. Focus on practicing 1-2 chores at a time in a structured environment and do not force your child. Try to create conditions where the steps in each behavior chain (activity or chore) are easily achievable and enjoyable. Provide a lot of praise and other types of positive reinforcement. Help them to feel successful and valued. Please do not include activities that your child might find aversive or do not turn chores and rituals into something aversive and therefore traumatizing for both you and your child.

For example: draw at the table, sort household items or learn new words. Be sure to include walks outside into your child’s daily activities; a trip to playgrounds (if possible) where the child can be among peers. Incorporate a few rituals into your daily routine. An example can be feeding birds outside. Before the walk, pour grains into a jar or bag together with your child, look for places where birds can be and feed them. Drink hot chocolate or juice on a bench before returning home, etc. Feel free to come up with those rituals that suit your family most. Just remember that the purpose of the rituals is to bring comfort and joy. So, try to include those activities into your rituals that promote a sense of hope, safety, comfort, and happiness.

Changing a child's activities from one to another in a stressful situation can serve as a behavioral coping strategy. Refocusing the brain from one activity to another, in this case from the traumatic situation by some pleasant activity, can help distract the child from the traumatic situation. If possible, create a space where your child can stay alone by themself if they do not want to be bothered or with you nearby. The space can be a relaxation zone with the child’s favorite toys and sensory toys for emotional discharge.

Set clear, realistic, achievable, and developmentally appropriate expectations. Setting expectations according to the child’s developmental age can help you to meet the child where they are and therefore give them the supports they actually need. Sometimes setting a bar for goals too high does not bring positive results. Instead, it creates a lot of stress for children as it does for their caregivers (teachers, therapists, etc.). When expectations are too difficult to achieve for you and the child there is a risk to miss acknowledging small positive improvements in the child's development. Therefore, there is also a risk to deprive oneself and the child from opportunities to experience happy moments. Putting a person in a situation where it is too hard to meet expectations might teach them that the expectations cannot be achieved. On the other hand, developmentally appropriate goals are more achievable and therefore they increase the opportunities to experience success for both you and your child (children) and support an appropriate level of self-esteem.

Here is an example of a parent of a child with special needs:

When I accepted the developmental age of my child, I lifted so many demands. My behavior mathed his developmental age. That helped to feel happy together. I allowed him to be who he is and it in turn helped him to develop and grow despite the fact the ongoing war. He finally started cooing and watching very simple cartoons for very young children. I started allowing myself to behave and respond to him as if he is very little even though he does not look like this at all. He started getting what he needed to get.

Absence of punishment for unachievable developmentally inappropriate goals, focus on play, and acknowledgement of his developmental age helped him and me to regulate his behavior and emotions better. For example, he started to put away his toys when he is done playing or giving a basket to me with toys. He started showing attachment to people. For example, he ran to greet and hug my friend he had not seen for a month and a half when she visited us. He was not used to doing that before. He started showing more positive emotions and his relationships with people improved in general. He is more interested in people now.

It was not easy to accept my son’s developmental age at all. It was not easy to lift demands from him. I had to change my whole perception of him, our communication, relationship. I needed to go back and look at the pictures when he was much younger, when his sister was much tougher to remind myself of how they used to behave and I how I used to see them. I started watching videos of children play, children who match his developmental age. I watched what they are interested in, what toys they like, how they played with them, how they and adults in the videos talked to each other, what voice intonations they used. All these helped to change my attitude towards our communication, find appropriate toys for him, my tone of voice, and meet him where he is.

When possible, try to follow these tips when working on your relationship with your child (children):

  1. Determine your child’s developmental age and find what is appropriate for this age.

  2. Don't ask your child for more than they can handle (perform).

  3. Simplify instructions to the child’s developmental age.

  4. Provide more prompts to help them feel more successful. This does not mean providing excessive prompts which might make the child prompt dependent.

  5. Praise your child often for completing instructions, both independently and with help

  6. Do not take things that your child can perform for granted. Find space to celebrate small achievements.

  7. Avoid sending double messages. Do not speak in veiled phrases. Phrases should be clear, short and mean exactly what you are saying. If you ask to “give me a cup”, you should understand that the child will give you any cup, and not, for example, a blue one, which you might have wanted, but you did not communicate that to the child.

  8. Address the child only when you are sure that they are not busy with something else. Attract their attention and only then give instructions.

  9. Feeling happy or enjoying simple things might help as well. Sometimes I wake up in the morning and run outside, drink warm tea, hear birds singing, and look at the sun. I am glad that I am alive, my children are alive. During the war, I learned to appreciate what I have at the moment. This attitude might help to notice small good things in your child (children’s) behavior. Try to verbally acknowledge it to your child (children) or show it any other way they can understand.

Social stories (can be drawn by hand). Often changes in the environment for a child with ASD are very stressful (house renovation, visits to different institutions, moving), especially during wars which is an additional variable that is extremely unpredictable and therefore uncontrollable. Social stories might be a way to communicate to your child something that can be expected and can be controlled. It is especially important to communicate to your child anything that is possible to tell to your child especially during military events to instill even a small sense of stability and hope. They are usually made in the form of picture sequences with short sentences written next to them.

Social stories might be a good accessible way to prepare your child about any changes in their daily routine. For example, if you know in a day that you will be moving from one place of residence to another, draw by hand (on a napkin, paper) in the form of a comic strip, with a short text, a plot in which you describe all the actions in stages.

Here is a sample text for a social story:

  1. Mom and Sasha pack things into a suitcase.

  2. Mom and Sasha carry their belongings to a car/bus.

  3. Mom and Sasha get into a vehicle and go to a new house.

  4. On the road, Sasha watches cartoons/plays games/looks out the window.

  5. Mom and Sasha arrive at the new house.

  6. Mom is very happy that Sasha arrived calmly and stayed in a good mood.

  7. Mom hugs and praises Sasha.

Social Stories are one of the ways to reduce the child's anxiety associated with change. Social stories have the most effect when they are supported by video examples, verbal explanations, frequent repetition, and matching what is drawn in the picture with what is happening around. Doing so is more efficient than just following a static image.

Here is an example of a social story

Emotional Safety

Children's challenging behavior might be a sign of them struggling with understanding and regulating emotions. These behaviors can become much more present due to stressful circumstances, such as forced relocation or lack of daily routine. Therefore, they might need adults’ help. When adults connect to children’s emotions by providing empathic understanding, it has a calming effect, also called co-regulation.

How can you still let a child express all these emotions but in a more acceptable way? In applied behavior analysis, we call it “Response Interruption and Redirection”. For example, vocalizations can disappear with singing or listening to music; hitting objects is reduced when hands are busy with other sensory toys. You can also use kinetic sand, any games with water and seeds, respiration practices. When he wants to break something, tear off paper and throw them into a bin and so on. Once again, try to implement play elements and stabilize the body by making deep massages and providing sensory activities.

One of the best solutions to help a child feel accepted and thus reduce this challenging behavior is commenting on what he/she is doing by describing his actions and giving a positive feedback of his activities. This promotes the feeling of being accepted and understood and helps to establish a better rapport with the therapist and other team members. These are some examples of such commenting that reinforces positive behavior.

Reflective listening is a communication strategy where a listener 1) seeks to understand a speaker’s thoughts, emotions, and behavior and 2) then repeats a paraphrased version of the speaker’s message (behavioral, verbal, emotional) back to them. Reflective listening helps to raise awareness of what the person is doing, feeling, thinking, sounding like to other people at the moment and helps to feel heard and understood.

By showing reflective listening, or commenting on a child's behavior, emotions, and their experiences without judgment and evaluations you provide them with psychological support they need in stressful situations. Being attentive and recognizing verbally how the child feels and behaves might help you alleviate your child’s emotional stress and resolve emerging conflicts, reach mutual understanding and feel mutual acceptance, build a healthier relationship between parents and children. By doing so you communicate the child a message that you are listening and hearing them and trying to understand and show support. Here are some examples:

  • It sounds like you were really scared

  • I wonder if you felt sad

  • I can see that something is going on

  • How can I help?

Reflective listening helps you understand the true message that the child (or any other interlocutor) wants to convey to you. In the process of communication, refrain from:

  • interruptions;

  • hasty conclusions;

  • hasty questions and moralizing.

For example, you can start your sentence by saying “It sounds like you are saying ….”

Rules for reflective listening:

  1. Take the correct posture. Sit next to or across from the child (squat down with the child / hold them in your lap), so that your eyes are at the same level;

  2. Do not be scared of pauses. After each child's answer, do not rush to comment and express your thoughts on the issue of the discussion. Take a short pause before saying something. This time is necessary so that the child can comprehend their experiences and feel that you are with them even more;

  3. Paraphrase and repeat what the child said in the same emotional state the child did. This will allow you to clarify whether you understood the child correctly, and the child will understand that you heard them.

For example, a child comes to you and says "I don't want to be friends with my brother." Repeat what you heard expressing the same emotion your child showed to you: “you don’t want to play with your brother”.

  1. Let the child know that you know about their experience/state by verbalizing the feeling that the child is most likely experiencing at the moment. Do not ask questions, your comments must be statements. It is hard to show empathy with questions.

For example, a child comes to you and says "I don't want to be friends with my brother." You can ask them questions like “What happened?”, “Are you offended by him?”. However, at this point you will not give the child an opportunity to reflect on their emotions, feelings, experiences. Instead the child will be in the position of the respondent rather than equal contributor and leader of the conversation.

Try to say: “You don’t want to play with him. You must be feeling hurt”

Another example can be where a child cries and says they want to go home. Try to say “you are very upset, you want to go home” first instead of asking “why do you want to go home?”

Commenting on the child’s behavior also helps the child understand that you are nearby, you are interested in what they are doing, this is important for you, and at the same time you don’t want to impose your own rules, opinions on the child, you don’t want to moralize, you are a close adult who can be trusted, who hears, understands and accepts the child. Also, an adult's commentary speech allows the child to better focus on what they are doing and associate the actions with the right vocabulary. This is also a way to model to the child how to describe things which eventually will help them to speak about themselves, things, events, and other people around them on a more advanced level.

For example, a child wants to find something in a suitcase.

The child opens the suitcase. You say: “you opened the suitcase”;

The child took clothes out of the suitcase and put them next to him. You can say: “you took the clothes out and put them aside. You don’t need them”;

The child found their toy in the suitcase, You can say: “you found the bear!”.

Not all children are the same developmental level. Some of them have reduced receptive and expressive language. In this case you can still work on reflective listening but try to use the length of the phrases your child understands. For example, one of my clients reported having a very tense relationship with her son. Every time she asked him to do something, he would show a tantrum to the point that she started feeling abusive. She was very sad that their relationship looks broken. According to her, he did not want to do anything she asked him to do. Instead, it looked like that she was a source of his tears, anger, and frustration. Reducing the number of instructions towards him and introducing commenting on his behavior and emotions helped them to mend their relationship. Whenever it was his leisure time she joined him by saying something like “it is a book”, “ you flipped the page”, “happy, you are looking happy”, “you are smiling”, “you are sad”, “elephant” (pointing to the elephant in a book), “you are sitting”, “you are watching TV”, “you are looking at me”. Only after a week of commenting on his behavior and emotions did she share very pleasant news with me. Her son started looking at her more often, he started establishing eye contact with her more often, he stopped walking away from her every time she joined him during his leisure activities, he started inviting her into his leisure. After two more weeks he started speaking one-two word phrases more often. He was more happy to see her. It became easier for them to negotiate their schedule. His tantrums have reduced. She started feeling happier.

Children's challenging behavior is a sign of them struggling with understanding and regulating emotions. Therefore, they might need adults’ help. When adults connect to children’s emotions by providing empathic understanding, it has a calming effect, also called as co-regulation. This co-regulation allows children to learn skills in emotional competence. Very often behavior problems reduce or stop when humans feel emotional acceptance and that they are understood.

Leisure activities. Try to continue developing joint and independent leisure activities. Put a lot of emphasis on the body. Movement is a natural need of the body, so it is very important to include sports or any other activities (outdoor games) in your child's daily leisure routine. Try to be outdoors more often and, if possible, use all kinds of equipment and other resources: playgrounds, football fields, running, etc.

At home, play videos for your child with children or cartoon characters doing various exercises/dances/yoga. Video modeling will help the child to both continue developing cognitively and physically. It is not necessary to be near the child 24/7, give her/him time to be alone as well, to play on their own. At the same time it is important to teach your child how to spend time alone. Visual schedules and visual behavior chains might help them to do so. Parallel play, following your own visual schedule in parallel might be another option to help your child learn how to gradually spend time on their own. At the same time do not be too far from your child so they can find you easily when needed.

Play is an important tool for stabilizing a child in different situations. Through play, children express or play out their emotions that they cannot communicate. Experiencing stress with various changes in the environment, the child tries to talk about their experiences through their behavior. Through play, children live through and resolve the difficulties that surround them in a setting that they can control. They cannot control what is happening to them and around them but they can control what happens in their play. Play is a universal language (communication) of each child. Their toys are their words and their play is their language.

During play children not only try to understand and gain control over challenging situations but they also practice different ways to cope with such events and then regulate their emotions and behavior. This is also a space where they can improve their communication skills and continue building trusting relationships. Building (and constantly improving) positive and trusting communication and emotional context through play makes it possible for the child to achieve healing psychotherapeutic effects. Therapeutic play is a type of play where the mandatory rules are limited to safety. It is a play with freedom of action for a child and manifestation of various emotions without judgment. There are games with rules as well but the rules should be understandable for the child and the way they are introduced should be gentle. With the help of play as a therapeutic method, the child understands their importance, uniqueness and feels accepted as a person.

Case example. Girl A plays a story game. In her play she arranges toys on the floor and at the same time tells what is happening in the game. A therapist sits nearby, watches the course of the game and comments on the actions and statements of the girl. The girl builds an island (which has the same name as the area where her family summer house is) and a railway with a train. She puts a doll called Masha on the train and decides to go to this island. While still on the train, Masha realizes that she is beginning to freeze, and the girl begins to get nervous. The therapist offers different ways to help Masha warm up - find warm clothes or a blanket, turn on the heating, or drink warm tea. But the girl says that all this will not help Masha. So, the Masha doll reaches the island and hopes that it will be warm there, but no, the doll gets completely frozen. The girl gets upset, starts crying, she does not like any solutions that she offers by herself and the ones that the therapist offers. They cannot not solve the problem. The girl cannot calm down for a long time, because she does not know what can help Masha to warm up, because she is already very cold. After some time, the therapist asks the girl: “What can warm you up when you are cold?”. The girl thinks for a while and says “hugs”. Then the therapist and the girl hug the doll together. That is the right solution. The hug helps the doll to warm up very quickly.

Once in a safe environment, it is important for parents to foster a child's play routine. Parents can use all kinds of materials/resources that are available to them, starting from toys that they have taken with them (during evacuation) to improvised materials. If you have art supplies, draw with your child, sculpt (you can make dough by yourself), play drama, or be a supportive observer of your child’s play. It is also important to remember that any child’ play should be voluntary and not imposed. The play should be enjoyable both for the child and you or other participants.

Development of play and interest in toys might help you during relocation or to spend time in a shelter. For example, one of my clients was working on developing play skills and interest in toys in her son before the military events in Ukraine started. In the beginning of the therapy his interests in toys were extremely limited. By the time military events started he had a variety of toys he wanted to play with. That helps them a lot when they need to go to a shelter. She gives him a list of things in a picture format that he can put in his backpack. He packs his backpack by himself now and takes his toys, books, drinks, and a blanket. Observing what he plays with in a shelter most helped her to create a visual list of things which are very desirable for him. These toys helped him to learn how to eat at the table, use a bathroom in a proper way, and develop new skills. For example, she showed him how his favorite doll uses a bathroom and he decided to use a bathroom. These accomplishments would have been hard to achieve without taking into consideration the child’s developmental age and developmental sequence of play.

Refer to developmental sequence of play when playing with your child or children.

Information Safety

Adults should pay attention to the children’s electronic devices (mobile phone, iPad, etc.) as nowadays it is hard to have control over the content on the internet children are exposed to.

Try to reduce access to war content in order to limit stress

Limiting the constant presence of war in everyday life, by watching less news and video coverage, can reduce stress. Looking for new war broadcasting can lead to finding new and new war related content and fill up your child’s time or your time. It’s probably better to avoid such videos currently and to change conversations to more peaceful topics.

Protect your child from inappropriate content

It is not a secret that during wars even official news channels tend to show cruel and shocking content, which can be very destabilizing and create a feeling of insecurity. In social networks and messengers, violent videos are quite common, as well as agressive verbal communication and mottos, which tend to attract people by breaking news and exclusive content (often fake or wrongly interpreted). Adults should control children’s access to such sources of information, especially if kids want to use the internet on their own.

Explain rules of online communication

Cruel and inappropriate expressions are possible even in private groups or messenger correspondence, while children or teenagers chat about their life. During conflicts, many youngsters tend to repeat all they hear around and thus might also emphasize negative emotions between friends and community members.

So, it is important to explain to a child that quarreling is easy and getting back to friendship can be long. So if someone is offending the child, it’s better to avoid communication than support hate speeches or trigger arguments. It might be more preferable to cut the established communication routine than create a behavior pattern of virulent abuse.

It is extremely important to explain that all words can not only hurt other people’s feelings but also attract the police, as messages are automatically analyzed by special algorithms or somebody might complain about Facebook comments, for example.

Parent’s role and control degree

Every family should decide about parental control in accordance with the child’s age and their involvement in internet search/communication. Parent’s role is to establish (new) rules in order to reduce stress from violent content and psychological abuse. In most devices it is recommended to use parent control options to limit access to web sites and time usage. It is possible to unplug a wifi router in some cases and to search information together, as children are usually prone to get under somebody’s influence easily and to be shocked by violent pictures or words for a long time.

If we speak about independent web activities such as communicating with friends, it’s also possible to be present in the room or to explain that any hurting words are enough stimuli to temporarily cut communication. It is also important for the close people not to break these rules by themselves (e.g.not letting themselves be involved in hate speeches in front of the child, discussing/watching cruel content in their presence, etc.).

Seek social support

Resilience is the ability to cope emotionally or mentally with a crisis (adversity) and to return to pre-crisis status. It is not a static process but rather a dynamic capacity or developmental process to adapt successfully to a broad range of systems under adverse circumstances. A combination of various risks and resources (protective factors) contribute to life adjustment.

Reaching out and reestablishing supportive relationships increases resilience. Supportive relationships give more opportunities to create and share positive emotions with others. This helps to bond people together, create and maintain strong, healthy, and caring relationships which serve as a protective factor from psychopathology. Supportive relationships help to buffer effects of risk exposure and successfully cope with traumatic experiences.

Try to create social support groups for your children where they can vent and talk to each other, feel like they are not alone, they can play with each other, or just simply be together. Note, that some children would prefer to not be around other children. In this case do not force them to do so but keep thinking about how you can foster children’s social relations.

Seek out professional support

As soon as possible reach out to your leading specialists. It is important to provide a safe, developmentally appropriate, culturally responsive recovery environment. Any therapy for a child should be uninterrupted, whether with a therapist or a parent or both. In the situation of military events, external resources and training opportunities are very limited. Therefore, whenever possible, it is important to keep in touch with the leading specialists of the child. Take consultations from time to time which can guide you to better assist your child’s needs. As soon as possible try to include therapy sessions in the daily routine of the child. Take care of both your own emotional state and the child's. Try to expand and develop social and everyday life skills through learning in a natural environment.

Balance structured and unstructured activities. You need both of them. The intervention should be aimed at expanding the motivation of the child in the conditions in which the family is currently living. Continue to follow your individual development plan, if you have one available. Your therapist might consider it necessary to adapt it to the new conditions. If there is no therapy plan, you need to identify the primary goals to work on and build a plan on how to achieve them. Emphasize communication skills through learning in an unstructured environment, play activities, and self-care/self-reliance skills.

Working in teams is especially important in such stressful situations because the number of tasks usually increases, and to avoid burnout, it is helpful to share responsibilities. Including parents in teams also helps because they know their children best. They might have information that can inform your practice. Good teamwork helps everyone to be on the same page and to provide consistent intervention in multiple settings.

Overall, during any war conflict, working with a specialist off-line can be challenging, first of all due to logistics. However, it is important not to interrupt therapies if possible, thus:

  1. Try to keep in touch with your specialists online, if they are available. Don’t hesitate to try online sessions. Otherwise ask for supervision.

  2. Implement more activities with your child which used to be implemented by his/her specialists, if possible. Not only will it occupy you both but will also help to generalize skills. It is usually easier for parents to follow a ready-to-do program than to invent something on their own. However, it is possible to develop a new plan together virtually.

  3. If your main specialists are not available, ask them to suggest you other specialists who are available to teach or have online experience. Your previous specialists should transfer a report, the program and probably some educational materials to the new therapist/supervisor.

Written on 9/21/2022

Edited by Max Sims

Written by

Anastasiia Iun, M.A. in Applied Psychology, Counseling Track, American University of Central Asia (The Kyrgyz Republic); BCBA, Clemson University (USA); Ph.D. candidate in School Psychology, University of Massachusetts Boston (USA); BCBA consultant, May Institute (USA)

Daria Kobenko, M.A. in Psychology, National Aviation University (Ukraine); Psychologist and ABA instructor, Center for Psychological Diagnosis and Rehabilitation “Neuroflex” (Ukraine)

Julia Lamm, M.A. in Educational Psychology, MPGU (The Russian Federation); ABA center “Voshod” (The Russian Federation)

Irina Grigoryeva, M.A. in Language and Pedagogical Studies, Moscow State Linguistic University (Russia); BCaBA; ABA tutor for Autistic children in private and state schools (Switzerland)

Elena Gayevskaya, M.A. in Psychology, Family systems counseling; Ph.D. candidate in Philology (Comparative Studies); ABA instructor for autistic children in schools (Ukraine); BCBA in training

Anna Chijova