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Children in Migration & Mental Health

Trust is the basis for receiving report: Observations by BRIS, Sweden


Our European Regional Manager Ronja Ulvfot recently blogged about her invitation to speak about child helplines and children in migration at the Expert Seminar on European and International Policy Agendas on Children, Youth Affairs and Children’s Rights.

In this blog, Terese Ahlstedt from our child helpline member Bris – Barnens Rätt i Samhället – based in Sweden, talks about the importance of creating trust and building relationships to give children and their caregivers the courage to ask for help and support.

Trust is necessary for children and parents with experience of war and being forced to flee their home country to dare to ask for support. Through support lines with full anonymity and physical group support, Bris creates trust and builds relationships that enable more children to receive the support they need and are entitled to.

In recent years, Sweden has received many children and families who have been forced to flee their home countries. They have often experienced difficult and traumatizing events before and during their flight to Sweden. It comes as no surprise that mental health problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and anxiety are more common in children with experience of war and flight than in other children. However, research shows that the reception in the new country can have as much – or even more – impact on a child’s long-term mental health than their experiences before and during the flight itself.  

Part of  “a good reception” is that a child gets quick access to professional psychosocial support. Here, support lines play an important role as low-threshold support that is available to all children, regardless of where they are in the country. At Bris, the child has full anonymity. The fact that Bris can never trace or contact a child seeking support via the support line further lowers the threshold. Many children say that they feel lonely, lack friends and a social network and that they do not want to burden an already burdened parent or other family member. Being able to call and get support from a safe adult, preferably in their mother tongue, makes a difference! Having a positive experience of receiving support also increases the chances of the child receiving other support when needed, even later in life.   

Adult support line opens doors

Social support from the immediate environment is one of the most important protective factors for children to recover and thrive after a crisis or traumatic event. This is why Bris also has support lines for adults who need support in matters relating to children. Here we see that full anonymity is particularly important, as is support being provided in different languages. Bris offers support lines in Swedish, English, Arabic and Ukrainian. 

In Sweden, many new arrivals and foreign-born people have less trust in the state and authorities than the majority population, and fear of the social services is widespread. In Bris’ Ukrainian and Arabic support line, parents have told us that they do not dare to seek care for their children or ask staff at school for advice and information, and that they do not dare to tell how they and their children are really feeling, how they are really managing with the situation they find themselves in. This fear of social services therefore has serious consequences for children’s lives and it is incredibly important that there are support channels where parents dare to tell and ask their questions. Having a positive experience of receiving support can open doors that would otherwise be closed to these families .  

Group support builds trust and relationships

Lack of trust in the authorities and the fear of social services is a challenge for us here at Bris. Many children and parents who come to Sweden do not know about our services, and therefore do not dare to ask for support from us. An important part of our work is therefore to establish a good relationship with the target group, which is done mainly through our physical Bris receptions around the country. 

To reach out widely, we collaborate with organizations that are already highly trusted by the target group. Through these collaborations, we can meet the families in their own arena, which allows us to offer initial support to the parents. Bris offers parental support groups, and through conversations with parents, relationships and trust are built. We explain what support children and their parents can get, and that they always have full anonymity whenever they call our support lines. This has resulted in more parents and children feeling able to call our support lines and more children being given the opportunity to participate in our physical support groups. 

Bris works with two different forms of group support for children who have fled. One is aimed at children who show symptoms of trauma linked to war or disasters, using evidence-based Teaching Recovery Techniques (TRT). The second group support is aimed at children who cannot stay in their home country due to war or disaster, and who need to meet and talk to other children with similar experiences. Bris has developed this support together with children who have fled.

In our outreach work, we have employed Ukrainian-speaking counsellors who act as “bridge builders” with Ukrainian families. Calls to the support line show that many callers have met, know someone who has met, or have interacted with these counsellors on social media. 

Creating trust and building relationships is fundamental for children and parents to have the courage to say yes and take advantage of the psychosocial support we offer.  

Let's work together to reach more people

Support lines are key to identifying and providing support to children and parents who have been forced to flee their home countries. Support lines have a unique position by being able to provide support to all children regardless of where the child is, where the child was born, what their parents and/or caregivers think about receiving support, what the child’s background and experiences are, or what the child wants support with.

But we need to reach more people! Together, we need to increase awareness and trust in 116 111 so that more children in migration are reached by the support that they need and are entitled to, regardless of which country they are in at any given time.


Teresa Ahlstedt
Social Worker & Programme Manager

Bris, Sweden