How parents explain war and threats to their children. The experience of Ukrainian mothers

Under the threat of shelling and fighting, it is important to explain what is happening to children and help them survive critical situations.

13 March 2022

The war in Ukraine has become a serious challenge for families with children: some families are forced to leave; others are setting up safe places in their hometowns. Under the threat of shelling and fighting, it is important to explain what is happening to children and help them survive critical situations. This is what Ukrainian mothers are doing now, and how their children are reacting.

Настя Абрамець, редакторка видання про відпочинок. Мама 5-річного Лева. Живуть у Львові.

Nastia Abramets, editor of a leisure magazine. Mum of 5-year-old Lev. They live in Lviv.

What they do: setting up a shelter together to feel as a team.

My family and I stay at home. Although all the family and acquaintances try to send us somewhere further in the West. Neither me, nor my son want to leave home. We only consider this option if the situation develops in a very critical way.

We were going to talk about the war with my son ahead of time. My husband and I have read several articles on how to do it correctly, but we kept putting it off. In the end, when the sirens woke me up in the morning of February 24, we didn't have anything packed, we hadn't bought anything and we still hadn't talked to Lev. When I got control of myself (for the first hour I had something like a panic attack), I sat down next to Lev and explained that Ukraine had been attacked by Russia. He had previously known about Crimea and Donbas, about Maidan and Heavenly Hundred and the threat of another attack.

I started to explain about the dangers of being close to the windows during shelling, of the need to go down to the shelter. But as it turned out, he already knew all this from his kindergarten class. He himself ran to take glass objects from the windowsills, even though we adults had forgotten about that. He takes the alarm as a signal to get ready very quickly. A child who was getting dressed for a walk for two hours is ready to go down to the shelter in two minutes at the signal. He stands there in his jacket and hurries up his dad.

Sometimes Lev says he is scared. Most of all he was scared of the basement itself. Now we have cleaned it up a bit, my son had been helping. We try to consider our fleeting to the shelter with humour calling the basement “our underground hotel” and the rooms “hotel rooms”. Also, the child has his own task: he carries the floor mats to give him a sense that he is part of the team and is also responsible for safety. In front of our son, we hold back and don't show strong negative feelings, so that he continues to understand that shelter equals safety.

Our whole explanation gets down to one message: we are your adults and will do anything to keep you safe. We are there for you, we know what to do. In cases of danger, sorry, but your rights to freedom of expression are revoked and you clearly do as you're told.

We have a backpack packed by Lev with toys: paper, felt-tip pens, a board game, a book and a few other knick-knacks to take to the shelter. Since my husband spends most of his time close to the door working (internet is available only in that spot), I entertain Lev. We draw, play and talk all the time.

Олена Шаніна, бібліотекарка, мама двох дітей. Розповідає про молодшого - 9-річного Максима. Вугледар.

Olena Shanina, librarian, mother of two children. She talks about her youngest, nine-year-old son Maksym. Vugledar.

What they do: Tactile contact, maximum time spent with the child.

Unfortunately, our town is again in the epicentre of hostilities. We live in the Donetsk region, near Volnovakha. A shell exploded near our house during the first days of the war; it hit the local hospital next to our apartment building. At that time, I was at work and the children were at home. My son was very frightened by the explosion.

Before that, we talked to my son: I explained to him why we were packing emergency bags. I talked about the algorithm for action: where to run, who to contact. My son had a banana bag packed with keys, phone, money. But in the critical situation of shelling, fear prevailed, and the child just ran out into the entranceway, trying to save himself. He started calling me on the phone: it was a wild scream. It's good that a neighbour heard it and intercepted him, preventing him from running out into the street. The shell exploded about 200 metres away from us.

Now we don't have a chance to get out of the town, but we found a safer place not on a top floor. He feels safer here, he is afraid to go home. Now my son only feels safe if I'm around. He feels comforted if I cuddle him. Now we have no water supply, so I have to go out to get water. My son is worried, he asks me to hurry back and waits for me in the corridor.

Now, after a week of war, he no longer cries. When he hears some sounds, he waits for me to react: either to go to the shelter, or “it's OK”. I understand that this is a serious trauma for him.

Гаяне Авакян, журналістка, мама 7-річного Тимофія. Бахмут.

Gayane Avakyan, journalist, mother of 7-year-old Tymofiy. Bakhmut.

What they do: schedule the day and repeat household rituals.

Our town in the Donetsk region is 30 kilometres from the contact line. Because of the threat of occupation of this part of the region, we left in the first hours when Russia declared war on Ukraine. Our belongings were packed in advance as we felt a risk of this particular development. I was very worried that the child would have everything he needed in his new place. But apart from clothes, we packed a separate backpack with toys, and took Tymofiy's two favourite books. This made it possible both on the road and in our temporary accommodation to create a homely atmosphere for him – to repeat our daily ritual with bedtime reading, for example. Or we took a children's album with us, from which he has been redrawing self-portraits lately.

There was a tense atmosphere at home the week before departure. I talked to my son and explained that in this situation he was a child, and we were the adults who would do anything to keep him safe. I repeated that to him like a mantra to make him feel less anxious. The most stressful moment was the trip itself: because of the pandemic we haven’t been travelling much lately, but he loves trains, so we planned the route so that we would get to our destination by train. On the way Tymofiy's appetite disappeared dramatically: we anticipated this and took with us caloric foods and sweets, we let him eat what he wanted and when he wanted it.

We're in a safe place now, there is no sounds of sirens here. But in the first few days, while we were all recovering, Tymofiy spent a lot of time with his phone playing games. Now we've worked out a schedule for the day with him, so that he feels predictable. Hopefully, this will allow him to take control of his time as he did it at home and influence how he spends his day.

I can see that the child is reacting very strongly to our discussions of the hostilities by saying a lot of aggressive words, getting angry. I don't forbid him to express his emotions, but I understand that this experience of being displaced and living in war has already become a serious trauma for him. I am sure that Tymofiy and many other children will need qualified psychological help to get over it.

Маріанна Рудик, підприємиця, блогерка. Мама Юстини (6 років) та Олесі (3 роки). Львів

Marianna Rudyk, entrepreneur and blogger. Mum of Yustyna (aged 6) and Olesya (aged 3). Lviv.

What they do: “competition” with gathering and going down to the shelter

Our family stays at home, but every time we go into hiding when the sirens sound. They have already got used to the sirens, it's somewhat of a “challenge” for them. Get your shoes on quickly, run out quickly.

They already have their own place in the shelter and a group of children to play with. We spread out camping mats for them, take out toys and colouring books. They play. They do not panic. In Lviv, fortunately, there have been no explosions so far. We try to explain the seriousness of the situation, but I'm not sure that my daughters fully understand.

On the first day of the Russian invasion, we told them that a full-scale war had started in Ukraine. We showed them on a map what is going on and where. It seems to me that they don’t realise what is happening. Frankly speaking, the girls have certain aggression. They call dictator Putin stupid (I let them do it) and threaten to stand on his foot (yes, stand on his foot 😁). They say they want to freeze Russian soldiers with magic. This is their childish perception of war.

Валентина Фотчук, мама у декретній відпустці з двома дітьми (4,5 роки та 9 місяців). Розповідає про старшого сина Артема. Тернопіль.

Valentyna Fotchuk, mum on maternity leave with two children (4.5 years and 9 months). She talks about her eldest son Artem. Ternopil.

What they do: They talk about the defenders

After the first alarm signals, we left Ternopil for the countryside. I told Artemchyk: “Pack the top necessities and we will go to the village to my grandmother's place because it's dangerous in Ternopil. I didn't explain to him that it was war, I just told him it was dangerous. I was very surprised: the first thing he took was a toy machine gun.

In the village you don't hear the alarm very much, so my son doesn't have constant panic, he doesn't worry as much. As soon as we explained to him that there was a war and Ukraine was under attack, he started asking how it could be. He knows that his own uncle is in the east of Ukraine and is defending us. He knows that there are many soldiers there who can defend our country. But at the same time, we explained to him in which case we would have to shelter in the basement.

Артем Пельц

Olha Pelts works in the nurse-midwife station. She is a mother of many children. She talks about her youngest son Artem, aged 6. Ternopil region.

What they do: They answer all the questions.

In our village the alarm is not loud enough, so we learn about it from the net. At first we had to go to the basement, Artem didn't react well: he started crying, he didn’t want to go down. But we decided together with him to clean there, bring water, candles and warm blankets. Now we are trying to turn it into a game, so he agrees to come down: we make jokes, take sweets to distract him, let him play on the phone.

We told him as it is, that there is a war in the country, that Russia has attacked Ukraine. We explained that the hostilities are not taking place near our home, that we have a strong army which won’t let the military come to us. Artem reacts quite calmly to such stories and asks a lot of questions. We showed him a map of Ukraine to explain where our region is and where the fighting is taking place.

Once my son asked if there were many snakes on Zmiiny island (which is literally translated as Snake Island). He happens to look for missiles in the sky which may be flying in our direction. To reassure him, we explain that missiles are not flying specifically into our house and that we need to hide further away from the windows to be safe.

Ірина Маркевич, мама 11-річної Каті. Харків.

Iryna Markevych, mother of 11-year-old Katia. Kharkiv.

What they do: Support from peers and favourite toys.

As soon as the shooting started, we left for western Ukraine. My daughter reacts very calmly. She and I visited my parents in Israel in 2014. We spent three weeks there under shelling. It was quite a long time ago, but she has remembered it and therefore reacts normally to the need to go for shelter, she understands what is happening and how to act.

But for our family, the war started eight years ago and is still going on. Katia's father took part in fighting, so did his friends. Nothing new, unfortunately, has happened to us. The only thing is that now we have had to leave home. But we believe that we will return there.

Katia is a Plast member (Plast is a scout organization). At the meetings they packed security suitcases, my daughter left home with it. In the shelter during the emergency alarm Katia reads fairy tales to other children and it calms her down.

My daughter has also taken her favourite toy with her. We were welcomed by our friends who have a 5-year-old daughter. Katia talked to her and told her she was not afraid of sirens, and that she should take her toy along to the shelter. Children feel safe, but to ensure that parents need to remain calm.

Our children are now children of war. My friend’s 9-year-old son is chatting with his friends, who call themselves “children of war”. They called themselves like that. Now they follow the news together and support each other in their chat room.