From dark to light
How art therapy is helping Ukrainian children in Poland cope with the impact of war
The children and families of Ukraine have endured violence, trauma, loss, destruction and displacement since the war escalated on 24 February 2022.
More than 1.6 million refugees from Ukraine have registered for temporary protection in Poland. At the peak of the displacement, there were an estimated 3.5 million refugees from Ukraine in Poland. The overwhelming majority are women and children.
The art in this exhibition has been created by children who fled Ukraine and found safety in Poland. It provides a unique and powerful insight into each child’s experience of war and displacement.
The drawings, paintings and sketches were created at art therapy group classes or individual psychological and psychotherapy sessions run by trained psychologists and psychotherapists who have also fled to Poland from Ukraine. Their professional experience and shared experience and language helps the children feel understood and at ease.
Children’s mental health is often another casualty of war. Psychologists and parents tell us that children jump at loud noises, shut down and stop talking or cry constantly. Children often blame themselves for the sorrow of their parents. And after the turmoil they have been through, it is hard to adapt to new situations and a new life.
“The war entered the lives of most Ukrainian children with its horror. They witnessed hostilities, saw what children should never see,” says psychologist Olena, who works at a UNICEF-supported Centre for Education and Development (Edu Hub) in Warsaw.
The war has broken connections between families and friends. It has impacted all their basic needs: physiological, safety, belonging and love, socialization and self-actualization.
“Children are often worried when they have lost their favourite toy. And in this case, they have lost the whole environment they were used to: their own cozy rooms, friends, classmates, teachers, pets, hobbies, communication with grandmothers, fathers," Olena says.
“This was their whole beloved world! The changes were sudden and very traumatic. A lot of emotions, fear, unknowns, unfamiliar environment, tears and worries of mothers. It is too much for any child. The war will forever remain in their souls, regardless of whether they were at the epicentre of the events or only heard their relatives talk about it.”
The invisible wounds of war
All children displaced by conflict are suffering from the invisible wounds of war. The psychological toll of the conflict in Ukraine on children is enormous.
“When you possess darkness within, all you feel is inconceivable pain, sadness, fear, anxiety, anger, loneliness, distraction,” says Natalia, the Coordinator of the psychological and pedagogical support team at EduHub.
“The art shows what the children are going through.”
At the start of art therapy classes, a lot of children, especially those aged around 8-12 years old, choose black paper or dark colours for their work. Often they are not able to explain why. Psychologists believe it reflects the extreme anxiety, depression, guilt, terrible dreams and memories the children describe when they speak to them.
From dark to light: the power of art therapy
Art therapy is a powerful tool that helps children process and express the experiences and emotions that come with living through war and displacement. It is not about drawing beautifully but expressing and unlocking emotion.
Through art therapy, psychologists are able to gain insight into a child’s inner world. They use different methods and techniques to provide a safe and non-threatening way of working through distress, trauma and difficult experiences. As well as art, creative therapy includes music therapy, fairy tale therapy and acting. These help both adults and children feel calm. They encourage people to relax and focus on the here and now.
“The goals of creative techniques in therapy are to improve the psychological and emotional state, self-expression and self-confidence. It relieves tension, gets rid of fears, anxiety, aggression, depression, apathy, and raises vitality and mood,” says Oksana, a psychologist at the Edu Hub in Warsaw.
“And it really works! The magical effect of art therapy techniques is that we ourselves do not notice how we change from the inside.’’
For children who are not able to express themselves or know what they are feeling, art provides a non-verbal outlet. Even two-year-olds have participated in art therapy sessions at UNICEF-supported centers. Art is play for children. It can break down defense mechanisms and bring out difficult emotions and experiences. The healing power of art is in the creative process and ease of self-expression.
Safety in Poland
Much of the art on display here shows how the children who drew it started to feel a sense of physical and mental security. Many of the drawings that depict safety show pictures and representations of Poland, implying that children feel safe here.
Some of the work is carried out in stages using what is called the ‘exposure method’. First, the children named and depicted difficult emotions. After this, they meditated and were asked to go to a place in their imagination where they felt safe. The children were then asked to depict this safe place.
Throughout this process, the therapist remains neutral. They do not suggest feelings or places or mention war. It is crucial the work is independent to encourage the manifestation of hidden emotions, anxieties, or fears. Exercises like this are aimed at restoring self-regulation and helping children return to a state of calm and hope.
To address the ongoing mental health crisis among refugees from Ukraine in Poland, UNICEF ensures that mental health and psychosocial support is incorporated into every aspect of our response. This starts when at the border where psychological first aid and support is provided and continues as they settle into communities across the country.
As children progress through therapy, they begin to settle. Their art becomes more whimsical and confident. They use colour and humour. Parents say they see children begin to open up and play again. Creating art has provided an opportunity for the children to appreciate their own successes. It fosters pride in their creations and boosts self-esteem.
The art displayed here is about creativity and fun. While there are still many challenges ahead, for many children undergoing therapy, childhood has started again.
“The art has taught me that children naturally have a lot of light, a desire for harmony and goodness. When we provide them with good emotional and physical conditions for development, they are able to overcome even the most difficult experiences,” says psychologist Natalia.
Safe and thriving
Each piece of art you see in this exhibition tells the story of a child’s experience of war and displacement - but also healing.
The UNICEF Refugee Response Office will remain in Poland for as long as our presence is needed. Our vital efforts would not be possible without the support of public and private donors and for this we are truly grateful. We count on the continued support of individual, corporate, as well as government donors, so we can keep delivering for children in Poland who’ve fled war.
“If Ukrainian children traumatized by war receive emotional support today, tomorrow they will become a generation that prevents and counteracts war,” says psychologist Natalia.
This work is helping children reclaim their childhoods. We must continue working together to ensure every child receives the help they need to thrive now and into the future. These children are the next leaders of Ukraine. The future of their country depends on the support they receive from the rest of the world today.