CARMEL, California– War tears apart economies, destroys land and ruins relations, but there is yet another reason peace is preferable: the psychological effects of war on children are long lasting and horrific.
Children struggle significantly during times of conflict in a number of ways. Many are caught in the crossfire, with nearly half of civilian casualties being children in any given conflict. Eighteen million children have grown up in war zones, where two million have died, six million have been permanently disabled and one million have become orphans, according to organizations like UNICEF. These children grow up with the inherent stress of living in a war zone, and most experience severe psychological repercussions later in life.
At the same time, nearly 300,000 children are forced into the violence as child soldiers. They are currently used in about 30 countries, from Sudan to Myanmar to the Central African Republic. These children face further atrocity and emotional damage. Often, these child fighters are not welcomed back into their communities and are forced to grow up without the support of their families.
Children in combat experience the greatest hardships of humanity from a young age. A 2007 study by Ed Bayer looked into the experiences of child soldiers in Uganda and the Congo. By age 15, 54 percent had been forced to kill someone, 28 percent had been raped and an overwhelming 80 to 90 percent had seen someone killed or been beaten themselves.
Children on the sidelines of a war zone face trauma as well. Many children are orphaned or lose at least one parent when displaced. Ed Cairns of the University of Ulster found that being separated from a parent was one of the most stressful experiences for war-effected children. Cairns states that, because young children rely on their families for protection and to cope, a torn apart family can leave a child feeling afraid and hopeless. The loss of a parent can result in fewer resources like food, water and shelter, which prevents a child from growing up in a safe and healthy environment. Orphaned kids must work to feed themselves, meaning they do not have the opportunity to obtain an education and a have a playful childhood.
Children who grow up in the midst of war face shocking levels of trauma, but humanitarian aid tends to focus on their physical needs rather than the psychological ones. NGOs deliver food and vaccinations, but ignore the fact that much of the damage is long lasting psychological trauma. Aid often patches physical wounds rather than emotional ones.
“The physical, sexual and emotional violence to which [these children]are exposed shatters their world. War undermines the very foundations of children’s lives, destroying their homes, splintering their communities and breaking down their trust in adults,” says Graca Machel, a Mozambican politician who was once married to Nelson Mandela.
This psychological damage will leave children to carry the burden of their war-torn childhoods for the rest of their lives. PTSD is often a corollary of growing up in war, especially in child soldiers. Bayer’s study of former child combatants in Uganda and the Congo shows that the average PTSD rate among those who had been abducted into groups like the Lord’s Resistance Army was 33 percent, compared to kids who had never been abducted at just over eight percent. Even worse, 48 percent of those who had been kept in the army for more than a month, possibly being made to fight or loot villages, had PTSD symptoms. Some studies show rates as high as 82 percent, but the fact remains that war is hugely traumatic for children, especially when they are directly affected.
Children from war-torn backgrounds have a tendency to develop depression as a result of the horrific things they have seen. A study by Vinck in Northern Uganda found that slightly over half of abducted children had moderate to severe depression. Pfeiffer found that 16 percent of kids who were abducted were depressed and, of these, 34 percent were suicidal. For kids kept over a month rates were even higher, with 24 percent of the total group depressed and 37 percent suicidal.
Psychologist Michael Wessells says, “One of the greatest effects I see on a day to day basis is a loss of hope. Once young people feel hopeless, they really do give up. They don’t take steps that might build a constructive future.” This is exemplified by the 60 percent of Rwandan children that have lost all will to create a stable future after the genocide.
Children suffer in more ways than PTSD and depression. For example, children that come face to face with armed conflict often feed off of the hostility around them and become violent and aggressive. Cairns says that exposure to violence at a young age makes such communication seem normal. “This is putting young people at risk for continuing cycles of violence,” he says. War-exposed children often imitate the violence they have seen while playing games and solve personal conflicts with aggression.
On top of this, kids who are exposed to war at a young age are often afraid and more prone to panic attacks, anxiety disorders, bedwetting and nightmares. Ahilgova at the Alina camp for displaced persons says, “Some become frozen with fear at the mere sound of a helicopter rotor blade or airplane.” Daily life in a war zone leaves these children afraid for their lives even after they have left.
War is a reality for these children, but there are ways to help them handle the stress. It is crucial to war-affected children’s emotional health that child psychology specialists are included in the humanitarian efforts to provide aid to war-torn populations.
“It is necessary to intervene to protect [children]and prevent the aggravation of these mental and emotional problems they experience in order to not be affected in the future. This is why parents and psychologists should do their best to support children as much as possible,” says Zeina, a field activist in Syria.
Rehabilitation centers at schools or orphanages can provide the sense of community that children growing up in war zones are so often robbed of and help them build a future with less psychological baggage. For example, the Child Advocacy and Rehabilitation group runs a 10-month program for children who grew up surrounded by war. As many as 450 kids in three locations receive counseling, education, healthcare and job training to ensure they come out of their experiences in war as emotionally safe and confident people.
Groups like CAR are only able to reach a small fraction of the kids affected by war and they cannot reverse the effects of war on children. Therefore, it is necessary to reform the humanitarian aid system to respond to psychological damage. International aid must include emotional assistance to the young victims of war in addition to the food and medicine it currently provides, or else there will continue to be a large number of aggressive and traumatized children with nowhere to turn.
– Caitlin Thompson