Children taking refuge in Armenia require ongoing psychological support
Irina Khanamiryan, co-founder of the Armenian Association of Child and Educational Psychologists, and UNICEF partner speaks about the impact of distress and trauma on children’s mental health
“The 12-year-old boy arrived in Kapan with his grandfather and mother. They had a relative in the area where they could stay. We talked with the child while his mother was busy with the registration paperwork. He eagerly shared stories about his friends, but there was a moment of sadness when he mentioned not knowing their whereabouts. It became evident that he had a deep connection to his home when he watched a boy riding a bicycle and remarked, ‘Mine [bicycle] got left behind.’ I inquired about the most significant item he managed to bring along. After a brief pause, he responded that his father's grave was the most cherished thing he wished he could have brought with him. We learned that his father had passed away just a few days earlier, on 19 September.”
This is a story a colleague relayed to me recently. Like all of us, we are working to support children affected by such significant loss.
The journey of displacement may have a common origin, but each family and each child will navigate the psychological challenges of displacement in their distinct manner.
From the onset of displacement, members of the Association supported children and families seeking refuge in Armenia. Among the foremost and pivotal responsibilities was the assessment of needs and the provision of primary psychological assistance. The initial interaction and support play a crucial role in supporting children's recovery and bolstering their coping mechanisms. Special attention is made towards the needs of displaced children, as the challenges they encounter today can manifest as lingering issues in the form of anxiety disorders, depressive reactions and behavioral and emotional disturbances.
If left unaddressed, mental health problems can affect children's ability to learn and build relationships, with negative consequences on future endeavors and their overall experience of childhood.
Children’s responses to displacement correspond to age-appropriate characteristics. Some of the most common manifestations include rejection, hypervigilance, and reliving of traumatic experiences.
An example of rejection is the refusal to engage with others, particularly among teenagers and young adults who are unwilling to establish new relationships or communicate with unfamiliar individuals. This often displays as aloofness. Adolescents can feel a sense loss of in direction and confusion about the future.
For younger children, rejection tends to manifest as a strong aversion to attending school and a fear of being separated from their parents. This resistance is even more pronounced among preschool-age children, who may adamantly refuse to be separated from their parents, even during counseling sessions.
Children and adolescents often relive various experiences through nightmares, unsettling and haunting memories, and fears triggered by specific factors, like an intense fear of thunder or loud noises. Children often talk about fears associated with evacuation routes and crossing checkpoints. Additionally, some children and teenagers witnessed the explosion at a gas station, the sight of burning bodies and the harrowing sounds of people in distress remain with them.
Another commonly observed manifestation in children is a hyperexcited state, often marked by hyperesthesia (heightened sensitivity). This sensitivity can manifest as crying, whining, sudden outbursts of aggression and anger, restless behavior, and strong reactions to minor stimuli.
These reactions are typical of children and adolescents, especially in the aftermath of crises, often persisting for months. In the case of chronic crises, where children’s fundamental needs go unmet for long periods of time, children can feel a sense of insecurity, serving as a foundation for emotional and behavioral disorders.
Children who have experienced significant loss may be overwhelmed with more intense emotions associated with grief, requiring much more intensive support.
Children with special educational needs who require professional support are at an increased risk of experiencing a heightened version of negative mental health problems and psychological distress, emphasizing the need for tailored assistance and understanding.
The longer children experience deprivation, prolonged absence from school, and time in basements or shelters, the more patience we must exercise when working with them, taking gradual steps towards their recovery and resilience. It is crucial to understand that even with the most diligent efforts, these issues cannot be resolved in a day, week, or month. A sustained and multifaceted approach is essential, involving continuous support.
The assessment of psychological needs provides insights into the child's current condition and the extent of their difficulties. Equally important is the ongoing psychological support for children and adolescents facing behavioral and emotional challenges. This support should encompass both individual and group sessions, as they play a pivotal role in helping children overcome their primary difficulties.
Another crucial pillar of support includes parents and education professionals. Providing psychoeducation on effective parenting strategies, proper organization of the educational process for traumatized and wounded children, and actions geared toward facilitating psychosocial adjustment are imperative.
The consistent and secure presence of a trusted adult, coupled with a stable environment, holds immense significance for children's recovery. When these elements are in place, achieving the desired and noticeable results becomes possible. Consequently, support should be extended to parents and caregivers, aiding them in acquiring stress-coping skills to manage their own anxiety stemming from the escalation of hostilities and displacement. Furthermore, this support should empower them to respond effectively to children's needs and actively promote their mental well-being.
It is of utmost importance to prioritize the fundamental needs of children and adolescents, which encompass access to nourishment, adequate sleep, educational opportunities, a secure environment, and the comforting presence of relatives and loved ones.
We are confronted with children who have endured loss far too frequently, children who have fled their villages, their homes, and their friends repeatedly. These are children whose formative years have been spent in basements amidst the harrowing sounds of bombings, queuing for bread instead of eagerly raising their hands to answer questions in class. Our responsibility is to aid these children in overcoming their losses, adapting to unfamiliar environments, reintegrating into school life, and rediscovering the joy of learning. It is our obligation to help them reclaim their lost childhoods.
About UNICEF's work
Over 100,000 ethnic Armenians, including 30,000 children, left their homes and sought refuge in Armenia. UNICEF is actively addressing their pressing needs through close collaboration with the Government of Armenia and partnering organizations.
From the initial days of displacement, UNICEF collaborated with the Armenian Association of Social Workers (AASW) and psychologists, training frontline professionals in Goris, offering support for case management, and delivering psychological first aid.
To attain enduring and sustainable outcomes, UNICEF is committed to implementing a more systematic and comprehensive approach to address this ongoing issue. This approach considers the groundwork laid in 2020, the existing systems, and the valuable lessons learned along the way.
In partnership with its partners, UNICEF intends to provide psychological support to children, adolescents, caregivers, families, and the broader communities. This includes ongoing training for frontline workers, with plans to expand their reach to other communities. Furthermore, the reactivation and rebranding of hotlines, initially established in 2020 to aid and guide frontline emergency responders, are also part of the strategy.
The intention is to restart the courses designed for parents, which will empower them to respond effectively to the needs of their children and address their own well-being as well.
Socio-psychological support for children will be accessible through safe spaces established within communities, where both group and individual services will be offered.