“Even a baby feels war epidermally,” explains a psychologist

Almost every second that passes, a child in Ukraine becomes a refugee. That’s the terrible assessment of the spokesman for Unicef. In the past 20 days, about 1.4 million children have been forced to flee the country, or about 55 a minute, James Elder said at a news conference in Geneva. What do you understand by the conflict that is taking place? How do you experience this forced exile? The psychologist Philip Jaffé, member of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child and board member of the Swiss Competence Center for Human Rights (CSDH), offers his expertise on the psychological consequences of wars for children.

Franceinfo: What is the situation of Ukrainian children?

Philip Jaffe: Unfortunately, the conflicts are repeated and similar. The war in Ukraine is no different from the war in Syria, even if the geopolitical conditions are different. To the Committee on the Rights of the Child (United Nations body, editor’s note) we try to remind the Russian state that it signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child and that it has obligations that it does not respect. In addition to the bomb attacks, Russia is also responsible for the lack of access to medical care in Ukraine or the closed schools.

In times of war, children are separated from their daily activities, their routines, their hobbies. Suddenly her whole life is turned upside down.

“The first consequence of a war in a child is the disappearance of smiles. The games stop, their childhood is taken from them. They sometimes encounter sleep disorders, as they sleep in new conditions. Nightmares may appear, faces frown.”

Philip Jaffé, psychologist

at franceinfo

It would be wrong for the youngest to believe that they are protected by their cognitive abilities, which are considered inferior to adults. Even a baby feels epidermal contact with its concerned mother. We know that at every stage of a child’s development there are fundamentals to be realized, but in babies, well-being is lost and cannot be replaced. Oddly enough, a certain number of children still have a surprising resilience.

What physical symptoms can these children experience?

In any conflict, even before war breaks out, children react to adults’ fears. They are already marked by the noxious atmosphere. It weakens them, it makes them more vulnerable. We often hear about post-traumatic stress disorder. But before that, there are mild to moderate symptoms. Those who need to alert are different depending on their age. Children who become withdrawn and non-verbal, who become behaviorally unmanageable, hyperactive, or destructive require special attention. We must also look out for the food that is no longer being digested, the child who is no longer eating… The signs are plentiful.

This is the art of good mental health management: being able to assess it on a case-by-case basis. The prognosis is better for children who were able to leave Ukraine under less urgent conditions, who were received abroad by volunteers who are not on their knees, especially if they are not direct witnesses of the bombing.

What should we think about to accommodate these children in the best possible conditions?

Children arriving in France or Switzerland, for example, need to be able to find routines, meals at regular times, and a space that is theirs.

“Even if they cannot find their apartment or house in Ukraine, the loss of privacy must be limited. The children also have to go from kindergarten to school fairly quickly once their situation has stabilized.”

Philip Jaffé, psychologist

at franceinfo

They need social contacts in order to be able to exert themselves again, to play, to laugh, even if the situation at home is worrying. The attention given to the mental health of these children is important, possibly with psychological intervention when the criteria warrant. Finally, we must be able to maintain the same level of mobilization over time. The families need long-term support with the prospect of returning to Ukraine.

Can her trauma be recorded over time?

Obviously, for some children, the effects of the war in Ukraine will be felt in the very long term. There will be children who become restless adults forever. This may be the case for children who were vulnerable before the war began.

“But if we support the families well, if they are reassured about the future of the people who remain in Ukraine, some should not find any trace of the trauma in the medium and long term.”

Philip Jaffé, psychologist

at franceinfo

At the end of World War II, we told ourselves that civilians would be traumatized forever. In fact, the vast majority are able to process painful memories and reconnect with the joy of life.

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