"One day, the humans came; they chopped down the trees, and disturbed the serenity of the group of animals that lived in the exquisite, magical forest." This children's story was told in doll therapy ("bubotherapia"), a new treatment method that helps children who live in conflict zones cope with post-traumatic stress. The program, which has been successfully tested in kindergartens located in Israel's North, will also be made available in the upcoming school year in Ashkelon, a southern city that recently came into the range of Qassam rockets.

The program was instituted in immigration absorption centers housing Ethiopian immigrants in the wake of the Second Lebanon War. It was recently introduced to kindergartens in Nahariya, since some of the children still suffer from anxiety related to the 2006 war. The program is based on a series of sessions attended by children, educational staff and parents. The goal is to expand the range of coping mechanisms available to children who are experiencing difficulties and to enhance their emotional strength and personal empowerment.

The program, called "What Helps When I'm Having A Hard Time," was developed by therapist Smadar Cooper-Kesari and is based on a model developed by Prof. Mooli Lahad, president of the Mashabim Center at Tel Hai Academic College. Doll therapy makes use of stuffed animals, with which the children can identify. "Using dolls or stuffed animals creates distance, a feeling of 'it's not me - it's the doll.' The child uses the dolls as a means to express and process whatever occupies his or her mind," Cooper-Kesari explains. "This indirect approach allows the children to express themselves freely on matters that concern them or cause them internal conflicts, without feeling guilt or fear."

The story, which provides the program's framework, describes the conflict in which the animals find themselves and the different ways in which each animal copes with its problems. "The animals enable both implications and identification. They allow the children to return to the past and identify coping mechanisms that were unavailable to them. They can then strengthen these mechanisms and develop additional ones," Cooper-Kesari says. According to the model underlying the program, there are six categories children and parents use to cope with difficulties: beliefs and values, emotions and the ability to express emotions, society and role, imagination, logic and the physical sphere. In using a stuffed toy in the shape of a sheep, for example, the program aims to strengthen group efforts, whereas the parrot emphasizes imaginative and self-oriented aspects. A stuffed rooster helps the children develop their beliefs and values, while also unearthing issues related to honor, pride and success. The dog helps the children develop the emotive channel and works on their ability to adapt to change.

"During early childhood, because of their tender age, children make it difficult for us, adults, to recognize and appreciate their distress and difficulty," says Cooper-Kesari. "We tend to be confronted directly with the results, in the form of aggression and violence."

However, doll therapy can help nip the violence in the bud, she say.

"The new program provides the children with tools they can use to cope with emotional and social challenges," says Cooper-Kesari. "In addition, it develops coping mechanisms, through which they are better able to handle difficult situations in their lives, both as children and later as adults."