Thousands of children, from infants to teens, have been killed, maimed, or rendered innocent victims of mental trauma in war-torn areas of the world. The statistics, while shocking and stomach-wrenching, don’t touch on what these children may face in the future.
Research over the years has shown the war’s far-reaching and current effects on those involved in war-torn areas. Living in conflict areas, being subjected to warfare, and being forced to migrate have all been repeatedly linked to increased dangers to one’s physical and mental health. Being in a combat zone has direct implications that can include physical harm, disease, psychological anguish, and even death. One of the most common and crippling effects is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In Kosovo, Iraq, and Lebanon, 87–97.5% of children affected by war have been reported to have PTSD.
How could children and adults not be so seriously affected? They can’t, and therein lie the issues that must be addressed now, not in the future when these disorders all manifest themselves.
Once the outbreak of war in Ukraine began, one study of Polish children had troubling results. According to the findings, children who are not directly involved in the conflict may also experience mental health issues. Polish youngsters had far greater rates of emotional difficulties and low self-esteem in the early months after the war began and in the early phases of the present refugee crisis. In addition, it seemed that the amount of time that had passed since the conflict began had an impact on how one saw the world and oneself.
Therefore, it’s not simply how they view the war, but themselves and their self-esteem and confidence. This corrosive effect needs attention immediately, but how do you do that while a war is still in progress? There are no simple answers, but aren’t some answers better than denying the existence of difficulties for these children?
The war in Gaza hasn’t resulted in the deaths of “civilians,” but of troubling numbers of children and created hoards of orphans who have had their parents killed in the bombing. How will they cope as they are moved as refugees without protection, perhaps to lands with foreign languages and cultures where they don’t fit in? We are looking at one or two generations that will be seriously impacted mentally by what they’ve seen and to which they have been exposed.
One thing I learned when I did intake interviews with children of Holocaust survivors was that no one wanted to talk about the horrors they’d experienced. But the mental effects were there despite this tendency to secrecy or to “forget” it all. Even when children wanted to understand and talk about it, they were shut down quickly or referred to others in the family who, similarly, refused to discuss it. They tried to seal the scar over with silence, and their children experienced the results of these efforts.
I only met one older woman who proudly discussed her experiences as a resistance fighter in France during WWII and how they killed Nazis with guns they’d never used before. She made it her mission to not only write a book about it but to travel to schools to give lectures and to try to provide answers to difficult questions.
Even children not exposed directly to war will need help in their psychological reaction to what they’ve seen or heard. Sitting safely in the United States will not ensure that they are untouched because we know that PTSD, surprisingly, can arise as a result of tangential exposure. UNICEF has eight suggestions for parents seeking guidance:
- Find out what they know and how they feel
Choose a time and place when you can bring it up naturally, and your child is more likely to feel comfortable talking freely, such as during a family meal. Try to avoid talking about the topic just before bedtime.
- Keep it calm and age-appropriate. Use age-appropriate language, watch their reactions, and be sensitive to their level of anxiety.
- Spread compassion, not stigma. Remind your children that everyone deserves to be safe at school and in society. Bullying and discrimination is always wrong and we should each do our part to spread kindness and support each other.
- Focus on the helpers. It’s important for children to know that people are helping each other with acts of courage and kindness. Find positive stories, such as the first responders assisting people, or young people calling for peace.
- Close conversations with care. It’s important to make sure that you are not leaving your child in a state of distress. Try to assess their level of anxiety by watching their body language, considering whether they’re using their usual tone of voice and watching their breathing.
- Continue to check in. Continue to check in with your child to see how they’re doing. How are they feeling? Do they have any new questions or things they would like to talk about with you?
- Limit the flood of news. Be mindful of how exposed your children are to the news while it’s full of alarming headlines and upsetting images. Consider switching off the news around younger children.
- Take care of yourself. You’ll be able to help your kids better if you’re coping, too. Children will pick up on your own response to the news, so it helps them to know that you are calm and in control.
These are all good suggestions, and I would suggest you read the full page in order to get the full benefit of everything they are recommending. Our children are precious, and we must do what we can to help them in these times of serious crisis.