Healing children’s trauma with a simple box of crayons

Giving children a chance to be a child again

UNICEF Myanmar
Danish Church Aid
09 December 2021

They look like any other children, happily absorbed in their colouring books.

But these children are from communities in Myanmar where armed conflict has endured for generations.

They are part of a programme set up to support their mental health, and one of the aid workers in charge in Kachin said, “This programme gives children a chance to be a child again.”

The work has been rolled out since 2017, with support from the USAID Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance, UNICEF and implementing partners.

The programme has established 478 child-friendly spaces across camps for internally displaced persons (IDP), and communities in Rakhine, Kachin and Shan States where children can participate in recreational and group activities.

As part of the programme UNICEF has also provided support for positive parenting initiatives, allowing caregivers to develop stronger relationships with their children.

UNICEF Myanmar
Danish Church Aid
Children in Shan State colouring their books

Doorway to healing

Each and every child-friendly space developed through this programme is an invaluable community resource where children can begin rebuilding a sense of normality and safety.

Activities centred on mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) allow children to communicate, socialize and, together, to develop positive coping mechanisms.

Something as simple as a colouring book can have a profound impact on a child. One front-line MHPSS worker in northern Shan State recounted the moment they witnessed the significance of a group arts activity at an IDP camp.

“When I first arrived, most of the children were quiet and hesitant to play but began opening up once they started colouring together. Many of these children had to leave their homes and run away for their own safety. But in that moment, they finally had something else to focus on, something else to talk about together.”

Across Shan, Kachin and Rakhine States, child-friendly spaces provide more than colouring and recreation activities. For many children, they are a doorway to begin healing from the traumas they have experienced in environments gripped by armed conflict.

UNICEF Myanmar
Kachin Baptist Convention
Children talking about their feelings in Kachin activity.

Shining examples

The children that this programme has reached are shining examples of resilience and courage. Across all regions, UNICEF and partner staff, many of whom grew up affected by the same conflicts and who find motivation in supporting their communities, have learned valuable lessons on mental health and self-care through the activities with children.

These activities have had a positive impact on the families of partner staff as well. From a Kachin IDP camp one front-line MHPSS worker said, “As a volunteer in my community, self-care is important because my own well-being has an effect on the activities that we conduct.”

Another front-line MHPSS worker from Kachin explained, “Working with this programme has given me a greater sense of self-awareness of my own stress and mental well-being. This has helped my family life too because when one person is dealing with stress it affects everyone.”

Unprecedented risk to child mental health

Today, children across Myanmar face an unprecedented risk to their mental health and well-being.

It has now been two years since COVID prevention measures, movement restrictions and schools closures began gradually to reduce the number of spaces where children can learn, develop and socialize.

UNICEF Myanmar
Danish Church Aid
Children in Northern Shan State during group MHPSS activities

‘Our future and our hope’

Over the past several months, this situation has worsened because children are now facing increased exposure to violence as protests and conflict continue to unfold from the current crisis. The effects will likely leave a lasting impression on the mental health and well-being of children across the country. Front-line workers report increased depression, addiction to online gaming, and drug use as schools and activities remain closed and financial pressures continue to burden families.

Affirming the growing need to support these children, one worker from Shan State shared her views on the need for efforts to step up efforts to create a positive environment where children can grow and develop. “They are intelligent, creative and strong…” she said, “They need a strong support system.”

Another staff member from a partner organization in Rakhine added, “Children are the hearts of our communities. They are our future and our hope.”