Psychosocial Support for Children and Young People

Psychosocial support is a term that is widely used, but frequently not understood. ‘Psycho’ refers to the inner world of a person – their thoughts, feelings, and emotions – while ‘social’ relates to the external world and environment of the person, and the relationships they have with this. Psychosocial support work therefore focuses on the aspects of an environment or situation which impact on both the social and psychological well-being of affected populations.

While psychosocial support can be achieved via specific targeted activities and programmes, it is important to understand that all interactions with children have the potential to be psychosocially supportive. This message needs to be spread to all humanitarian workers involved in the relief effort, even if they do not have a primary responsibility for child welfare. All humanitarian actors have a responsibility to ensure beneficiaries’ emotional well-being is respected in humanitarian operations. For example, respecting children, showing a positive attitude towards them and valuing their presence are all ways of helping to improve children’s self-confidence and self-esteem, and hence their well-being.

Psychosocial support means working not only with children but also their parents, the community, and other organisations to advocate for improved access to community support and basic services. 

Why Psychosocial Support is Important?

Assistance provided for children in an emergency usually includes looking after the wounded and distributing food and other non-food items. Often toys, books and other recreational and educational material is provided. This kind of assistance is very important as children’s physical and practical needs have to be met during the emergency period. However children do not only have physical and practical needs that must be met to enable them to develop to their full potential. Children’s psychological needs, such as the need for love and affection, to have values, to be able to hope, to be confident and have a sense of self-worth, are highly dependent upon the relationships that children have with their family, friends and other adults. Sometimes the intertwined psychological and social needs of children are referred to as emotional needs.

Providing Psychosocial Support

Early psychosocial support is very important in order to speed up the process of recovery and to prevent problems that children may encounter in the future. Sometimes this is done by providing specific, targeted activities designed to increase the resilience and coping of children (discussed later in this overview) but in general it is an approach to the care and treatment of children which can be considered to be psychosocially supportive.


Providing psychosocial support for children can be achieved in three main ways:

Encouraging children to resume their daily activities

In a disaster unexpected things happen which can be very frightening for children. Encouraging children to return to everyday and routine activities is helpful as it gives a sense of normality and creates a feeling of security and certainty. A typical way of doing this is to ensure that children return to education as soon as possible as a school environment is one that children are familiar with and resumes a sense of routine and normality.

Resuming children’s relationships with others doing activities

An emergency situation typically causes surviving parents and carers to focus their attention on other things than their children, such as reconstruction and ensuring basic needs are met. Children may also be reluctant to socialise with their friends for fear of being away from their home/parents or conversely parents may be afraid to be apart from their children and not want to send them to school. Activities that help recover children’s interaction with other people in their community increase feelings of belonging and improve self-worth and self-confidence.

Facilitating activities that can support recovery

Children need the space and the opportunity to understand and come to terms with what has happened to them, to adjust to changes in their lives and to develop new ideas about their future. It is critical to do this in ways which are culturally appropriate and therefore ‘make sense’. Culture plays an important role in fostering self-identity and creating a sense of belonging to a community. Psychosocial activities which are in line with the child’s culture help rebuild and reinforce those values.

Local fieldworkers can play an important role in ensuring that children’s’ culture is upheld, principally because of their knowledge of the culture. Where staff and volunteers from different cultures are working in an emergency it is especially important to ensure that they do not erode those norms. Even in Indonesia there are variances in cultural norms and practices. 

Psychosocial Activities for Children and Young People

There are many different types and ways of providing psychosocial support to children, but the easiest to do is to provide recreational activities. One of the benefits of using recreational activities is that they are fun to do. Some children will simply enjoy the activity, while others may find it supportive.

Another common way of providing psychosocial support is through educational activities. Clearly this requires proactive liaison and coordination with those working in the education sector. All language learning activities are very important to assimilate the new environment and society.

While special areas may be established to provide a location for psychosocial support activities in practice there may be many more temporary schools set up, and in which case it may be appropriate for agencies to work together to develop a psychosocial support programme which includes both educational and recreational activities. In practice there can be a lot of cross over between what might be considered recreational and what might be called educational. This is especially the case for younger children.

Irrespective of the activities provided, they need to be appropriate for the child’s age and development. Children may become bored if the activity is either too difficult or too young for them. They may also become restless if an activity lasts for longer than they are able to concentrate. 

Recreational Activities for Children and Young People

Suitable activities to that can be conducted as recreational activities include:

Art Activities

Art can be a means of communication with the external world and give expression to thoughts and feelings. Examples of art include drawing and painting

Drama and Puppet Performances

Drama performance is an effective way to help children develop their abilities to cooperate, to express themselves freely and to build their confidence. Drama can also help children work through their experiences and make sense of what is happening to them. Younger children (up to 9 years old) may particularly enjoy puppet performances. 


Both listening and telling stories can be useful in helping children to listen to other people, learn to show empathy, and respect. Stories can be used to explore moral values and ways of dealing with problems. A particular benefit of storytelling is that it can enable children to express ideas freely. It is not necessarily about ‘them’ but the characters they have created, although children may strongly identify with the characters and their stories. Storytelling can be done orally or in writing. Poems can also be used in storytelling.

Playing and Games

Unstructured games and play can improve children’s ability to express themselves. More structured games, with set rules, can help demonstrate and improve certain values such as sharing and cooperation, including controlling impulses. Games which are structured mean that preparation and implementation can be done in a more orderly manner.


Children are full of energy. Sports can be an outlet for energy, and this energy can be channelled in a positive way. Traditional games can be the means of preserving the identity and improving the feeling of normality. Such activities are normally easily accepted by the community and may also encourage wider participation. Sports can also help children’s physical abilities, but it is important to protect children from injury. Sports can teach discipline and cooperation and build solidarity through friendly matches.

Song, Music and Dance

Just like art and storytelling, songs, music and dance can be a way for children to express themselves. Additionally they can connect children to their cultural heritage. Where possible, and especially where there are few resources, children can be encouraged to make their own musical instruments. For example in Aceh children set up music bands using instruments that they had made from refuse, such as water bottles, cans and plastic containers.

Source: Toolkit on Child Protection in Emergencies: A Guide for Field Workers. Section 5. Psychosocial Support. UNICEF Indonesia 2008.