Amid conflict, parenting classes offer helping hand in eastern Ukraine

Children and families continue to bear the brunt of a six-year conflict in eastern Ukraine. However, there is hope on the horizon thanks to workshops on positive parenting.

Yulia Silina, Kate Bond
22 September 2019

Children and families continue to bear the brunt of a six-year conflict in eastern Ukraine, with nearly half a million girls and boys facing grave risks to their physical health and psychological well-being. According to UNICEF, one in four children who live near the frontline are in need of psychological support or treatment.

However, there is hope on the horizon thanks to workshops on positive parenting, organized by UNICEF and the European Union, which teach parents how to support their children.

“Surveys prove that a child under the age of 13 copes with stress just like his or her parents,” says Artem Pikushchenko, one of the project’s psychologists. “He or she can only get out of a difficult emotional situation if their parents manage it.”

“We were meeting families living within 15 kilometers of the contact line for three consecutive weeks. We conducted talks and interactive competitions, we provided literature. Many of them have similar problems – fears for the lives of their children, financial hardship. But before we help the children, we must help the parents on whom these children depend.”


We try to distract them

In the courtyard of a house, in the small mining village of Druzhba near Toretsk, the Lager family pumps water from a well to cook dinner. Behind their garden is a field of withered grass and pine wood. Five years ago, the contact line was drawn up right here.

“We no longer go there with the children for picnics or to pick up mushrooms or herbs for tea,” says Viktoria Lager, a mother of five, as she nods toward the pines. “The field was mined, and military positions are located behind the woods.”

For Viktoria, her husband Yevhen and their children, living so near to the contact line means a constant fear of shelling, landmines and financial hardship.

“We had shells and mines of 122 and 82 caliber that flew into our yard,” says Yevhen, who works at the local coal mine. “Doors and windows are damaged by shrapnel.”

“For sure, the younger children are still scared and crying,” adds Viktoria. “I remember a shell fragment hitting the door right after I closed it. Therefore, our children do not walk unattended and almost never go outside the yard.”

The workshop on positive parenting has helped the couple to manage their children’s fears.

“We try to distract them, to make them not afraid, to talk to them, not to get hung up on war,” says Viktoria. ““The psychologist explained to me that you first need to calm yourself so that all this anxiety does not go to the family. Trying to look at everything in a more positive way, believing that soon we will start living peacefully.”


If you cry, they will cry too

Oksana Bezdieniezhnykh, who also lives in the village of Druzhba, attended the positive parenting workshop with Viktoria.  She agrees that the most important thing about raising children in the conflict zone is to be able to calm them down and create an atmosphere of safety.

“We need to support our children,” she explains. “I am terrified with the war around myself, and they look at me with such wide open eyes, they do not know how to react. If you cry, they will cry, too. If you are positive, they will calm down, too.”

Oksana manages her emotions by spending time in her garden, among the roses that she planted herself.

“I sit on a swing and listen to the birds,” she says. “And my daughter loves to draw pictures with small details. For her, it is a way to handle distress.”

Her daughter, 12-year-old Nastia, is still grieving for the death of her grandmother in 2015.

“It was cold, I ran into the bedroom to get warm tights, and it turns out that it saved my family,” says Oksana. “My husband and children came running after me. My mom was next to the exit, and a shell exploded at the door, killing her. Everything was shaking, the chandeliers were falling down, the rugs were burning, but we were safe.”

“Of course, it affected Nastia. She is even afraid of the sound of thunder and lightning.”

Utility services in Druzhba are often interrupted by shelling. Oksana and her family lived without water, gas and electricity for months.

“I did my homework using the light from a small battery-powered lamp, “says Nastia. “Or dad would charge and plug in the generator so we could have light.”

The conflict has forced Oksana and her family to reconsider their priorities and future.

“We used to invest everything in the house, but now we understand how quickly it can be destroyed,” says Oksana, sighing. “So I try to work, grow vegetables in the garden, save money. For the money that I saved, I’d rather travel somewhere to relax or buy a dress for my daughter before the schoolyear starts. Something to please myself and the children.”