Development of the child

An unaccompanied child is extremely vulnerable: underage, alone and a refugee. Their migratory background, relationship with their family and network, and their prospects of return mean that general education on the specific situation of unaccompanied children is vitally important for people who are guiding them. It is also important for the recruitment and guidance of reception families. Specific topics in this context will be explained in this part of the toolkit.

  • Information

    Working with refugee children calls for a culturally sensitive attitude based on respect and an open mind for the background, values and experiences of the child.

    It is important to:

    • recognise and respect the child in the role they want to and can play for the family, the independence they developed during the flight, their religion, the need for contact with their biological family, the traumatic experiences the child has had, and the loss they have experienced;
    • show interest and respect for the child’s perception of illness, their explanations and possible solutions;
    • make it possible for the child to have contact with their biological family whenever possible, and involve the family with the well-being, development and asylum procedure of the child;
    • assess the risks of: pressure from human smugglers/people traffickers, honour-related violence if a child would start to diverge from the norm, female genital mutilation (FGM), and forced marriage1.


    Most unaccompanied children in Europe develop well as long as they have basic safety, good support and understanding, and an adequate social network. The in-depth material produced in the ALFACA-project describes ways to support unaccompanied children with development issues. These children need extra support for their personal development. The material deals with a number of problematic attachment and psychological issues that may put the development of young unaccompanied children at risk. These include trauma, depression, suicidal behaviour and inappropriate behaviour. Ways to offer specific psychological assistance to refugees are also discussed. Several issues are addressed from a variety of angles, influenced by experiences in various European countries. This helps professionals to choose the approach which is the most suitable in their particular situation.

    The ALFACA material was produced primarily for specialised professionals. It offers targeted training for those interested in supporting unaccompanied children with personal development issues, such as therapists, psychologists, behavioural scientists and other practitioners responsible for treatment. The in-depth material is available here.

    More information on the development of unaccompanied children can be found in the following publications:

    • Crossing borders: Trauma and resilience in young refugees. Marieke Sleijpen; 2017. Boom; 1 edition; ISBN-10: 9024409403; ISBN-13: 978-9024409402 (in English)
    • The trajectories of unaccompanied refugee minors: Aspirations, agency and psychosocial well-being. Marianne Vervliet; 2013 (in English and Dutch).
    • A first assessment of the needs of young refugees arriving in Europe: what mental health professionals need to know. Hebebrand; J.; Anagnostopoulos; D.; Eliez; S. et al.; European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (2016); volume 25; issue 1; p. 1-6.
    • Kinderen, gevlucht en alleen; een interculturele visie op de begeleiding van vluchtelingenkinderen. Marjan Schippers; 2017 (In Dutch, English version will be available in 2019).


  • Training and tools

    Training: ‘Life Projects’

    The Council of Europe has developed ‘Life Projects for unaccompanied migrant minors: A handbook for front-line professionals’ (2010). This is practical training and advice for front-line professionals involved in the design, implementation and review of life projects, as defined in Council of Europe Recommendation CM/Rec(2007)9 of the Committee of Ministers to member states on life projects for unaccompanied migrant minors.

    The handbook is available here.

    Tool: ‘Working with the unaccompanied child’

    In the CONNECT-project (2014), Nidos in the Netherlands developed the tool ‘Working with the unaccompanied child’. Based on many years’ experience, Nidos believes that guidance and support for unaccompanied children requires specific expertise that is different from that needed for other children in youth care who grew up in the Netherlands. The tool clarifies the specific knowledge and skills required to professionally care for unaccompanied migrant children who live in Europe. The tool is available here.

    Tool: guidebooks for dealing with traumatised children

    These guidebooks are meant for parents, but contain a lot of useful information for guardians too. The guidebooks are available in English; Arabic; Kurdish (Kurmanji) and Persian. (By Bundespsychotherapeutenkammer; Germany)

    Training: Alternative Family Care (ALFACA)

    In the ALFACA-project (2017), Nidos (the Netherlands) and its partners developed the Alternative Family Care (ALFACA) training. Module one of the training addresses working with unaccompanied children, and module two discusses family based care. The training consists of English e-learning and a manual in English, German, French, Dutch, Italian, Greek, Czech, Danish and Swedish. It also offers extra literature (for example, on guidance in cases of threats to personal development) and tools in English. All of this is available here.

    Tool: knowledge framework for guardians

    The Scottish Guardianship Service developed a Practice Manual in 2013 which includes a helpful knowledge framework for guardians in Appendix 4 (pages 90-94).

    Training material on surviving traumatic experiences

    In Finland, the project Transcultural trust: Supporting transcultural belonging among unaccompanied children and young people (website in English) has organised training on surviving traumatic experiences and social support in the day-to-day lives of unaccompanied children. This material can be utilised by anyone working with unaccompanied children. Materials for both training sessions are available online in Finnish.

    Video lecture on the challenges and opportunities for trauma care

    In Finland, the TASA-project has a video lecture on the challenges and opportunities for trauma care for unaccompanied children. The video is available in Finnish.

    Psychosocial care for unaccompanied children

    In Finland, the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Labour has published a handbook on psychosocial support for unaccompanied children. The handbook is aimed at providers of housing services/supported housing for unaccompanied children but has useful information for guardians as well. The handbook is available in Finnish.

    Assessing the best interest of the child

    In Finland, the organisation All our children has developed a model for assessing the best interest of the child during the asylum seeking process. The model is available in Finnish; see page 20.

  • Good practises

    In Italy, five training sessions for volunteer guardians were organised in 2017 by the Italian Ombudsperson for Children and Adolescents with the support of EASO. The training was exclusively for private individuals who had applied to become volunteer guardians for unaccompanied children. Participants had the opportunity to focus on the different profiles of children arriving in Italy, in order to better understand their perspectives, fears and hopes. From a legal point of view, they learned about the age assessment procedure and how to request residence permits. They also discussed the special needs of children who are the victims of abuse, heard about the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and examined the family custody criteria and repatriation cases. You can find more information here.

    In Athens, Greece, two training seminars were organised in 2017 for candidate members of METAdrasi’s guardianship network. The seminars included a large number of topics and case studies. Each session was given by a distinguished keynote speaker or expert, who provided up-to-date information that enhanced the participants’ knowledge. Particular emphasis was given to case management relating to drug use, SGBV victims and psychiatric issues. For this, relevant experts were invited to offer training to the participants and share their knowledge and best practices.