Israeli play therapy method helps Ukrainian children cope with wartime reality

August 25, 2022

Children don’t always know how to articulate their feelings, especially after trauma, but new therapeutic game developed by Israeli experts seeks to provide them with outlet to share and process difficult experiences

The ongoing war between Ukraine and Russia is taking a heavy toll on many facets of the life of the Ukrainian people, including their children’s psyche as they are torn away from their homes, daily routines, and sometimes even families.

These children are compelled to live on the run and look for refuge from the inferno, either with their families or even alone.

Besides immediate effects, such as stress, fear, and depression; children may also suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the future.
“In wartime, crisis or disaster, children are going through immense emotional distress as they are cut off from the familiar environment, knocked out of the balance of everyday life, and all while also absorbing pressures from their environment,” said Yael Livneh, an expert on trauma care for children and adolescents and lecturer at Oranim Academic College.
“Children who are at different stages of development cannot process, regulate, or express their feelings. They find it difficult to share complicated events or experiences and therefore may develop a post-traumatic experience,” she explained.
“There are moments and events that leave a mark for many years and can change an entire life,” said Dr. Itai Pessach, director of Safra Children Hospital.

Ukrainian refugee child during play therapy

“When I traveled to Ukraine to establish the infrastructure of Israel’s field hospital in Ukraine, I met young children who were torn from their lives and all of the sudden became refugees. It was clear to me that the biggest difficulties still lie ahead, as they will need to cope with the crisis and the trauma. After returning to Israel, as the director of a children’s hospital, it was clear as day that we must come up with an original method to help the children and their parents cope with the crisis they were going through.”

To that end, Sheba Medical Center partnered up with Oranim Academic College to develop a therapeutic tool that will help Ukrainian children to deal with the trauma they experience.
The method has already been successfully applied at Israel’s Kochav Meir field hospital in Ukraine and consists of a therapeutic game that allows the patient to process their new reality and restore a sense of normalcy as much as possible with a series of linked guiding instructions.
“Most parents are unaware of the impact they have on their children’s worldview during a crisis,” Dr. Livneh said.

A Ukrainian refugee playing with Dr. Livneh and Dr. Pessach’s therapeutic game

“Over the years, as I participated in humanitarian aid expeditions around the world, I realized what children need most during a crisis is help in processing the experiences they go through. The children don’t always know how to articulate their feelings, and the sense of loneliness with their private thoughts is a heavy, stressful burden they carry alone in their hearts.

My life goal, as I see it, is to do everything possible to reduce suffering in the world, starting from those within my reach, all the way to projects of this exact nature that will help heal the souls of children whose worlds collapsed around them. They are our future, and in order to allow them to grow up with hope, they need assistance in recognizing [their trauma],” Dr. Livneh said.
The game, created by Dr. Livneh and Dr. Pessach, was designed and voluntarily developed by Inbal Bar-Meir, a product designer and project manager, and by Maya Bar Yehuda, a graphic designer and illustrator.
The game includes a big match box that becomes a small house for the dolls that live in it. The goal of the kit is to support and encourage children to open up about the experiences they went through and to mediate reality for them while providing room for self-expression and emotional connection through doll play.
The game allows children to visualize an alternate reality through which they can share their fears and concerns.

Ukrainian child holds the game therapy kit

The kit includes “worry dolls” to which the child can talk and share their concern, thereby shifting their anxiety to the dolls. During play therapy, the child creates their own “safe place”, while the parent or tutor reflects the child’s feelings, and helps describe, process, and absorb their fears, dreams, and thoughts.

In addition, it encourages the child to envisage a return to normalcy and provides them with ideas on how their life might look after the war.
“We have created a tool that allows them to speak in their language, the language of children,” Livneh said. “It is important to be able to mediate children’s experiences, and to give them customized tools to psychologically process the changes that were made in their lives in order to reduce the level of stress and anxiety they are in and to reduce future damage as much as possible.”
The game was already distributed through the Israeli field hospital in Ukraine to children suffering from PTSD. The game boxes were handcrafted by hundreds of children from schools across Israel, youth movements, and children hospitalized at the Safra Children Hospital who volunteered to help the children of Ukraine. The children even added greeting notes and attached them to the game kits that were sent overseas.
The Israeli Embassy in Ukraine has already delivered hundreds of game kits to the Central Children’s Hospital in Kyiv and the games will be used by doctors, psychologists, and social workers, as well as the children’s families as a tool to prevent and cope with children’s trauma.

Published on 8.22.2022 Ynet

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