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The psychological cost of war on Ukrainian children

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Noel McDermott
Noel McDermott

Psychotherapist Noel McDermott examines our emotional ability to identify and empathise with others in situations of danger and how when faced with existential, anti-social and anti-human threats, we assert our love and humanity stronger as we have learned as a species that in this is our survival.  Our deep responses to seeing children in threat is a species level response, the deepest that exists for us as we are programmed to put a child’s safety before our own. Witnessing the lack of this capacity on our doorsteps is deeply disturbing to us as humans and after the pandemic, which was yet another existential crisis, this war is far more shocking.

How humans band together during existential threats

The pandemic had the effect of creating community on an international level. In behavioural psychology it is likened to flocking behaviour in birds. We feel safer in larger groups when faced with a predator and the particular nature of a pandemic happening in the 21st century meant we went online, vastly increasing the size of the flock and the depth of our international connectedness. During dangerous times humans seek and give solace to each other as a matter of nature.

Theory of Mind

Our emotional ability to identify and empathise with others in situations of danger is a profoundly human ability and a sign of psychological health. The distress we feel at seeing others in distress is a natural and normal human response. New-born babies display an empathy response we call flooding, where if there is a room full of new-borns who are happy and one starts to cry, in fairly short order the others will join suit. As we grow this flooding, emotional contagion, is replaced by more complex responses, the ability to protectively identify with another, or indeed an inanimate object such as a doll. This is part of the human capacity we call theory of mind.

Emotional Threat

During WWII we saw two large movements of children to places of safety. We saw kinder transport, the evacuation of Jewish children from mainland Europe to the UK and to other places of safety and we saw child evacuees from our cities to the countryside where we felt they would be safer. Our knowledge from those times tells us much about what will be happening for Ukrainian children. The child evacuees from cities all without fail came back to their parents where they could. This experience and every instance of forcible removal of children from their parents caused far more harm psychologically than it solved. Kids are so deeply dependent on their parents for development that sudden shocking loss of that relationship can cause lifelong damage. As perverse as it might seem, kids were ’safer’ from trauma and harm staying with loving parents in UK cities being bombed than being separated.

Separation and survival damage

The Jewish children who made it safety in the UK and other places, lived the rest of their lives with the damage of that separation and survival. Survival at the ‘expense’ of your loved ones involves a dreadful and heavy price. The saving of those kids is rightly looked on as a huge humanitarian success, and in London you can visit a moving statue to the arrival of them, with their iconic suitcases and name tags. These were the children that inspired Michael Bond, the author of Paddington Bear, to give that character his suitcase and name tag. And you can find the Paddington Bear statue by the kinder-children statue at the station. Their safety came at an extraordinary psychological cost.

The UK has begun to take in refugees from Ukraine and we have new kinder-kids and also uniquely from this conflict, children arriving with their mums via the Home for Ukraine scheme. Uniquely because generally in movements of refugees it tends to be single men who can escape and later bring their families. Or it’s kinder-kids, orphans and children sent to safety by their parents who cannot escape. The British public have responded superbly to this scheme with tens of thousands signing up to help. We have learned from our own experiences that we must help kids with their families to get to safety and we can in this way actually save kids from lifelong horror and trauma.

Short term effects on children under threat:

  • anxious and depressive responses
  • interrupted sleep
  • problems with appetite
  • concentration issues
  • regressed behaviours
  • emotional deregulation
  • fear of people and situations 

Serious trauma responses from children under threat:

  • intrusive thoughts about bad events or full flashbacks
  • hyper-vigilance
  • regressed behaviours
  • violence
  • self-harm
  • suicidal thoughts and behaviours 

Psychotherapist Noel McDermott comments:

Most symptoms will abate if the child is in a place of safety and most importantly their primary carer is with them and their carer is safe and stable. If the child gets back into school and a ‘normal life routine’ they will recovery spontaneously in the vast majority of cases. However, some children will be more deeply affected and for kids who are trapped in the war zone and exposed to atrocity etc it is more likely they will develop the more severe problems. Without treatment those problems will become chronic and embedded in their personality development, becoming what we term Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C – PTSD)”. 

The development of the more severe issues and the development of C-PTSD is also more likely for kids separated from primary care givers. It can’t be overstated how damaging separation from care givers is for children developmentally. In these cases, early intervention is needed from appropriately qualified and experienced mental health specialists to reduce the risks of long-term problems.

Noel McDermott is a Psychotherapist with over 25 years’ experience in health, social care, and education. He has created unique, mental health services in the independent sector. Noel’s company offer at-home mental health care and will source, identify and co-ordinate personalised care teams for the individual. They have recently launched a range of online therapy resources to help clients access help without leaving home – www.noelcdermott.net

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