How to build rapport with a child traumatized by war

Tips for volunteers on building relationships with children who have fled the war in Ukraine.

Anna Kozlova
22 March 2022

The escalating violence in Ukraine can be traumatic for children. Many have been deprived of the bare essentials, such as food or sleep, and some may be scared of loud noises. Volunteers and host representatives should follow these steps to build rapport when communicating with children who have been through stress. This will help avoid violating the child's boundaries and "restore" a sense of safety.

How to approach a child:

I. Getting to know each other

  1. Get down to a child's eye level (for example, by kneeling down or squatting in order to be physically on the same level).
  2. Introduce yourself: your name, what you do and how you relate to the child ("My name is Maria, I am a volunteer who helps families during their stay in our city").
  3. Ask what name the child prefers (for example: “How can I address you?”).
  4. Explain how long you will be with the child (for example: "You will spend the night here, I will be with you until the bus arrives and then you will go on").

II. Assessing the child's needs

  1. Ask the child how they are feeling.
  2. Ask them what they need now. Do they want water or food, or do they need a toilet? Are they warm?
  3. Maybe the child is sick and needs treatment?
  4. Do they want to play (perhaps with other children if they are also around you)?

III. Getting to know the area

  1. Show the child the room where they will be staying, where the toilet and the bathroom are located, where the child will sleep, where they can eat and play, and so on.
  2. Explain the rules of the stay to the child (for example: "We will have dinner at 19:00 in that room, and we all go to bed at 21:00").
  3. Tell them about the area where they find themselves (about your city, village, other features of the area that the child should be aware of).

IV. Support

  1. Tell the child that if they want to talk, you are ready to listen.
  2. Ask the child what they like to talk about.
  3. Ask what topics they would prefer not to talk about.
  4. Ask what they like to do (for example, whether the child likes to draw, craft, dance, sing, build Lego, etc.).
  5. Tell the child that if they need something, they can turn to you.

What not to do when communicating with a child:

  1. Do not ask the child about the hostilities they may have witnessed, how they felt when sirens sounded, when explosions and shots were heard*.
  2. Do not ask the child about those who remained behind in the zone of active warfare*.

  3. Do not violate the child's personal space. Be sure to ask the child if you can hold their hand or hug them before doing so.
  4. Do not express insincere emotions. You are also a human who has their own experiences and, if you are not in the mood, don’t just fake a smile because you have a child in front of you. Children feel the insincerity of adults, which can negatively affect your relationship.

  5. Do not discuss traumatic events related to hostilities in the presence of the child.
  6. Do not use profanity in the presence of the child.

  7. Do not ask questions such as: "What was your home like?" It is better to replace these questions with: "How do you like your home?" or "What would you like better?"

* Asking a child about traumatic events can lead to negative feelings or tantrums, which is highly undesirable. It is better to have the child speak up when they are ready.