19 October 2023
Children and adolescents who have fled Ukraine are unique in the way in which they cope with the situation and settle into life in Australia. While many children cope quite well with upheaval, change and uncertainty, others may be struggling with grief, fear, loneliness, anxiety and deep sadness. There are several services, including STARTTS, that you and/or the children in your care can access to support them through this difficult time.
What is STARTTS?
STARTTS is a NSW-based, specialist, not-for-profit service that provides counselling and community support to help people (including children of all ages) and communities recover from war-related trauma. All our services are confidential, impartial and free of charge to survivors of war-related trauma.
Counselling services are available face-to-face, via video-conferencing or over the phone. Ukrainian interpreters are also available.
You can refer yourself or your child to STARTTS for counselling by calling (02) 9646 6800.
STARTTS also staffs the “Witness to War Multicultural Telephone Support Line” (call 1800 845 198) on Mondays to Fridays from 9am – 4pm. This support line is staffed by Ukrainian staff members and assists individuals and families in NSW impacted by overseas conflict. The support line can provide:
- An initial needs assessment
- Brief, supportive counselling
- Referral to appropriate services (including STARTTS)
How do I know if my child needs professional counselling support?
Some common signs that a child or adolescent is struggling and would benefit from counselling include:
- They tell you that they are unhappy, scared, worried, guilty or lonely
- They are worried about family and friends left behind in Ukraine and or struggling with grief due to the separation from loved ones.
- Are more clingy than usual/don’t appear to feel safe without you
- Are having nightmares that upset them
- Are hypervigilant, easily startled
- Are fearful or anxious e.g. shortness of breath, fast heartbeat, sweaty palms, panic attacks
- Find it difficult to relax, socialise and/or play
- Have trouble focusing and/or concentrating
- Have problems with short-term memory
- Have unexplained stomach aches, headaches, body aches
- Seem preoccupied with the war most of the time. Find it hard to think of anything else.
- Lose interest in activities they used to enjoy
- Have little motivation
- Withdraw from social situations
- Poor diet changes or rapid change in weight
- Are having trouble sleeping or are sleeping more than usual
- Talk about feeling hopeless, worthless or wanting to die
- Believe they are a burden to others
- Are giving away sentimental or expensive possessions
- Symptoms are interfering with daily activities
- Symptoms are interfering with family/work/school life
If you are concerned that your child is struggling emotionally or psychologically, you can call the Witness to War Support Line (1800 845 198) to discuss your child and they will be able to assist you further. Alternatively, you can call the STARTTS Intake Line directly, to refer your child for counselling – (02) 9646 6800.
How can I help my child feel calm and positive?
Most children (especially young children) are heavily impacted by the emotional/mental state of their adult caregivers. This means that if you are struggling with your own mental health, it is especially important that you seek help (e.g. from STARTTS) and get the support you need during this very difficult time.
It also means that parents/carers can support their children’s emotional wellbeing by modelling calm, positivity, mindfulness and gratitude. These things are of course much more difficult to do, when parents/carers themselves are in emotional distress, so please practice good self-care and reach out for support for yourself too.
Tips for taking care of your own mental health:
- Take care of your body, with nourishing food, water, exercise, grooming and taking time away from screens and excess light before bedtime, ideally one hour before, but even 30 minutes before bed is helpful.
- Try to do things that give you a sense of achievement like chores, gardening, reading, cooking or baking.
- Connect with others. Make time to do something pleasant together with someone whose company you enjoy. This could be in person, or over the phone/video calls with people you can’t see in person.
- Make time for enjoyment, even though you might not feel like it at first. Think of the things that bring you satisfaction and pleasure and do at least one of these each day – e.g. a hobby, watching a movie, dancing, painting, making music, puzzles, gardening, videogames.
Tips for fostering your child’s emotional wellbeing:
- For younger children, try to spend at least 15 minutes a day focusing entirely on your child and following their lead on how they would like to play with you. This will help them feel a sense of agency/control and strengthen their sense of attachment and security with you. Try to gradually build up this child-led playtime to 30 minutes per day if you can remain patient, responsive and engaged with your child’s play for this long.
- For older children, let them know you want to spend more time with them – perhaps going for a walk together, cooking together, dancing together, playing their favourite game with them, doing an online yoga session together.
- Reassure your child that you are always available to talk to them. Discuss with your child who the other adults in your child’s life are who they trust and can talk to about problems, in addition to you.
- Routines help make life more predictable and therefore more psychologically safe for children. As much as possible, try to maintain regular bedtimes, waking times, mealtimes and recreation times for children. For younger children, routines around bathtime and storytime can assist with feeling safe and secure before bedtime.
- Offer reassurance that they are safe and loved and that this difficult period will pass.
I am feeling anxious and I think my child is too. What can I do?
- Practice deep-diaphragmatic breathing for at least five breaths. Breathe in for 4 counts, filling your lungs downwards so that your diaphragm gets pushed down, hold for a moment, and then slowly breathe out over 6 counts. Repeat that 5-10 times. If doing this together with young children, it can be helpful to pretend that you are breathing in the scent of cookies, fresh out of the oven, and then blowing them to cool them off.
- Grounding in the present moment and place can help with panic attacks and intense fear. Grounding is most easily done through engaging the senses. For example, focus on someone’s voice you can hear, stroke your hands over something with an interesting texture like a towel, carpet, basket etcetera, or slowly sip a cold drink and notice the coldness and wetness of the drink.
- Refer yourself and/or your child to STARTTS (call 02 9646 6800) for counselling if anxiety symptoms and feelings persist for more than two weeks.
My child is asking questions and viewing news about the war. How should I respond?
- It is generally a positive thing that your child is asking you about the war as it opens an avenue for you to support them with their thoughts and worries about the war.
- Generally, it is best to respond truthfully to children’s questions, but only give as much information as is appropriate for the child’s age and level of maturity. It is okay to tell your children that you don’t know the answers to some of their questions but in doing so, you can model how to maintain a sense of wellbeing in times of uncertainty. For example, you may say:
- “I know you really want to return to Ukraine. I do too. I don’t know if/when we will return to Ukraine. For now, we are making the most of our time in Australia, making new friends, learning a new language and discovering new hobbies.”
- “I don’t know how/when the war will end. The war is out of our control, so, for now I am focusing on the things I can control. Is there anything you would like to improve/change/get done, here in Australia? Maybe there’s something I can help you with.”
- “You miss your Dad/brother so much and are worried about him. I get those feelings too. Let’s think of ways to help us feel close to your Dad/brother while they are so far away. Let’s get a special scrapbook and each day we can draw a picture for Dad/brother. It will be a very special gift for them when we see them again.”
- People of all ages, including children, can get vicarious trauma symptoms from viewing war reports/recordings – e.g. trouble sleeping, nightmares, intrusive thoughts and triggering of past traumatic experiences. Such material can also make children feel like they are unsafe and that the world is a scary and unsafe place. This can lead to low mood and fear.
- Be aware of what children can overhear and see in the home, such as what is on the TV and what family members watching on laptops, tablets and mobile phones.
- Encourage family members not to take devices into their bedrooms, but rather, use them in a public area of the house.
- Talk to older children about the risks of viewing material that depicts human rights abuses. Some older children and young people might feel they need to “bear witness” to what is happening and suffer alongside their loved ones in Ukraine. Let them know you understand their need to help their people. Encourage them to get in touch with community leaders who can help them get involved in positive actions to support people in Ukraine.
- Model the containment of consumption of news about the war to the maximum of one short period per day. It is often best to watch/read the news when younger children are not around, as they may find it difficult to contextualise the news and your reaction to it. For older children who wish to follow the news themselves, suggest watching the news together for a short amount of time and then discussing what you have seen/read. This may help older children contextualize what they have seen and be supported in their reactions to the news.
My child wants to continue to do Ukrainian online school alongside their school in Australia. They are feeling overwhelmed trying to keep up with both schools. What should I do?
- The Ukrainian summer break is a great opportunity for children to focus more on their Australian studies.
- If children want to continue with Ukrainian online schooling in some capacity, but need to reduce their workload, children may elect to only study Ukrainian subjects online that are not offered by the Australian curriculum, for example, Ukrainian language and literature lessons.
- Discuss with your child about the importance of balancing their education, with other important needs such as sleep, socialising, exercise, a healthy diet and hobbies.
- Make arrangements with your child to review their involvement in both schooling systems once a fortnight/once a month.
- Due to the time difference between Ukraine and Australia, it may be beneficial for children to follow recordings of online lessons at more suitable times, instead of attending live online lessons that may interfere with meal and sleep times.
- Consider enrolling your child in a Ukrainian community language school in Australia, instead of daily online Ukrainian schooling. This may help reduce pressure on your child and help them build connections with other Ukrainian children. Some options include:
- Encourage your child to focus on the benefits of physically attending school in Australia such as making local friends, getting involved in extra-curricular activities, improving their English (which can open up a world of cartoons, movies, books and computer games to children).
- Reassure your child that it is normal not to be able to concentrate during stressful times, but that this feeling will pass and soon they will be able to focus again.
- Reassure your child that it is okay just to do the schoolwork that they enjoy/makes them feel good at the moment until they feel they can concentrate again. Teachers have been advised not to place any unnecessary pressure Ukrainian students at this time.
How can I add more fun, play, socialising and enjoyment to my child’s life?
- Discover new playgrounds and parks in your local area for a play and picnic. Type “playground” into Google maps and it will show you all the nearby playgrounds.
- Become a member of your local library. It’s free to borrow books, DVDs and CDs. Some libraries even have toy libraries. Most libraries run free activities for young children during the week and school holiday activities for older children.
- Visit your local Community Centre or Neighbourhood Centre to find out what programs they run for children.
- For children aged 0-5, join a local playgroup. You can use this website to find a playgroup near you https://www.playgroupnsw.org.au/explore/Findaplaygroup . Once you find a playgroup, call the Playgroup Coordinator and organise to visit a session with your child(ren). There may be a very small cost per session. Becoming a member of Playgroup NSW is free. You can sign up to become a Playgroup NSW member here: https://playgroupnsw.jotform.com/220227196497866
- The Ukrainian Youth Centre in Lidcombe, regularly organises events for children and young people. You can find out more on their website https://cym.org/ or Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/global.CYM/
- Some online classes can be more affordable than in person classes. For example, there is an online choir for children aged 4-15 years that costs $7.50 per class if you pay for one month (four classes) at a time ($30/month). Classes are once a week for 30 minutes. https://choirs4kids.com/programs/#zoomsing
Who can parents reach out to for further support for themselves and their family members?
- For emergencies, call 000. Don’t worry if you don’t speak English, just say “I need a Ukrainian interpreter” and they will bring in a phone interpreter.
- Limited, short-term settlement support is available through SSI in Sydney and Northern NSW – Ukrainian.firstname.lastname@example.org or 02 9685 0100.
- STARTTS For free individual counselling (online or over the phone) – Call (02) 9646 6800
- The Witness to War Telephone Support Line (1800 845 198) is staffed by Ukrainian-speaking Client Support Workers on Monday – Friday 9am – 4pm. They offer needs assessments, brief supportive counselling, referrals and information.
- For 24/7 telephone counselling for children and young people – Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800 – If your child needs an interpreter, tell them to call TIS first on 131 450 and they will call Kids Helpline for your child with an interpreter included in the call
- For 24/7 counselling for people of all ages – Lifeline – 13 11 14. You can select an option for an interpreter when you call this number.
For assistance with visa applications call:
- RACS – Refugee Advice and Casework Service. Call (02) 8317 6500
- Legal Aid Refugee Service. Call – (02) 8713 6725
- Jesuit Refugee Services. Legal Support. Call – (02) 9356 3888
Organisations representing Ukrainians in NSW, Australia:
- Australian Federation of Ukrainian Organisations (www.ozeukes.com)
- Ukrainian Council of NSW (ucnsw.org)
- Ukrainians.org.au – Has useful information for newly arrived displaced Ukrainians
- Every Saturday from 10am -12pm there is a “Meet & Greet” at the Ukrainian Youth Centre, Address: 3 John St, Lidcombe NSW 2141