Ukraine - Frontline children: battling mental trauma, underground

This is a summary of what was said by UNICEF Spokesperson James Elder – to whom quoted text may be attributed - at today's press briefing at the Palais des Nations in Geneva

23 February 2024
The schoolchildren are going down to the shelter of the Lyceum No.1 in Kryve Ozero. September 26, 2023, Kryve Ozero, Ukraine.
The schoolchildren are going down to the shelter of the Lyceum No.1 in Kryve Ozero. September 26, 2023, Kryve Ozero, Ukraine.

KYIV, 23 February 2024 – “UNICEF estimates that over the past two years of war, children in cities in Ukraine’s frontline areas have been forced to spend between 3,000 and 5,000 hours – equivalent to between four to seven months – sheltering underground.

“Try and imagine spending what would be 200 days over the past two years, confined to a basement, bunker, or a hole in the ground. This has been the reality for many children on Ukraine’s frontlines.

“Seeking safety from the missiles and drones is coming at a great cost for these children. From my dozens of conversations with families and child psychologists on the frontlines around Kharkiv, this situation has become absolutely devastating to mental health. The psychological scars for children are deep. And deepening by the day.

“According to survey data, half of 13- to 15-year-olds have trouble sleeping, and 1 in 5 have intrusive thoughts and flashbacks – typical manifestations of post-traumatic stress disorder. Three-quarters of children and young people aged 14 to 34 have recently reported needing emotional or psychological support.

“The ongoing shelling and increased use of drones, the awareness that children continue to be killed, all hinder children’s capacity to overcome the deep distress and trauma inflicted by this war.

“Parents across Ukraine report that their children are experiencing excessive fear, anxiety, phobias and sadness, disinterest in school and sleep troubles. At a time when parental care is needed most, half of parents surveyed report that they are struggling to support their children. Indeed, as a child psychologist in Kharkiv pointed out to me: parental care is essential to manage the immense toxic stress that children are enduring from prolonged exposure to conflict and chaos. But how, when parents themselves are experiencing the same events?

“Despite education being a fundamental source of hope and stability, it is chronically disrupted and beyond reach for a substantial segment of Ukraine's children. Children in frontline areas have been inside a school for a single week over the past four years - two years of COVID-19 and two years of full-scale war. In the Kharkiv region, two out of 700 schools are delivering in-person learning.

“Nearly every person I spoke to expressed deep concern over their children’s stunted socialization. 

“But there is a response:

  • UNICEF has nurses on the frontlines going door to door to give mothers and their babies and young children support and care during those critical early moments.
  • UNICEF has teams and teams of frontline workers delivering warm clothing, medicines and other life-saving supplies.
  • UNICEF has a network of psychologists supporting children and their parents, helping them overcome distress and trauma and find some relief, some joy.
  • UNICEF is supporting the reconstruction of critical infrastructure including schools and water systems, thousands of which have been damaged or destroyed in attacks.
  • And given a third of Ukraine is littered with landmines, UNICEF is providing life-saving education on the risks of mines to help children protect themselves.

“The attritional nature of this war plays out not just on the battlefield, but in families’ lives; each day sapping just a little more of that strength, hope and energy.  We tend to admire the resilience of Ukraine and its children, but we tend to forget what this resilience costs them.”

Media contacts

Georgina Diallo
UNICEF Europe and Central Asia
Tel: +41 76 320 68 14
Joe English
Tel: +1 917 893 0692

Additional resources

On 21 February 2024 in Kharkiv, Ukraine, children attend class.
On 21 February 2024 in Kharkiv, Ukraine, children attend class.


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