War and Political Violence Effects on Children Research Paper

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1. The Problem

Social science research on children and war can be traced back to at least the first World War but began in earnest during World War II. For most of this time this work has been regarded as outside the mainstream of psychological research largely because it was believed that few children were exposed to war or political violence. This is beginning to change because today civilians are increasingly becoming the victims of war. World War I recorded 10 percent civilian casualties; World War II some 50 percent, but in all subsequent wars around 80 percent of casualties have been civilians.

While it is difficult to say how many of these casualties have been children, one estimate is that during the 1980s alone some 1.5 million children may have died while an additional 4 million may have been injured. Further, even more children (perhaps as many as 15 million) may have managed to escape physically but still have had their lives thrown into turmoil as they and their families fled to other countries or became ‘internally displaced’ within their own countries.

2. Mental Health

Despite this long history the field today still focuses mainly on its initial area of concern—the possibility that exposure to political violence is a traumatizing experience for children. Certainly there is evidence that war experiences can lead to clinical illnesses involving a wide variety of variety of symptoms typically referred to as post-traumatic stress disorder.

The empirical evidence however, suggests that such suffering is not inevitable. This conclusion is based on relatively sound evidence that has been accumulated over the last half century. The only weakness in this area, it could be argued, is that researchers have tended to rely too heavily on teacher and parental estimates of child stress levels, with not enough direct measures from children themselves. A further problem is the almost complete lack of studies in which children have been seen both before and after their exposure to political violence.

The realization that children show resilience even when exposed to political violence has led investigators to search for those factors which may be helping at least some children to escape the more severe forms of stress. Early candidates in this area included personal factors such as age, sex, and personality. Surprisingly, in the context of political violence, very few studies have examined these in any systematic way, which makes it difficult to draw clear conclusions.

Additional sources of social support have attracted speculation including the extended family, the child’s peers, and the wider community. Here the evidence is almost entirely anecdotal but provides many interesting ideas that warrant empirical investigation. The cognitive-phenomenological model of coping may indicate a way forward in this area. For example there is some evidence that the child’s religious and political beliefs may influence the way in which political violence is appraised. On the other hand, we appear to know almost nothing about children’s sources of information regarding political violence and how they evaluate these sources.

Also problematic is the long-term effect of exposure to political violence. Evidence from holocaust survivors provides the largest source of information on this subject. Here it appears that claims of universal difficulties in later life have possibly been exaggerated. In contrast, evidence from children who become refugees is mildly optimistic, at least in the medium term, with the role of the child’s pre-refugee family support emerging as an important factor. Again, much of this is based on weak evidence. Unfortunately studies in this area often lack adequate (or any) control groups, while samples are open to bias because they are obtained from clinical sources.

3. Attitudes And Values

Either because children are modeling themselves on the adults around them or because aggressive behavior is a form of coping, the expectation has been that exposure to political violence will lead to an increase in aggressive behavior, for example when interacting with peers.

Several well-designed studies have examined this question, but evaluating the evidence is difficult because no two studies are identical. Some have involved children exposed to long-term political violence, but only one of these employed observational methods. In another study the children were observed but had only been exposed to political violence for a short time. Therefore despite the unusually high quality of the evidence, no clear conclusions can be reached. If nothing else, this illustrates the urgent need for cross-national replication of research in this area.

There has also been much speculation that children’s moral attitudes and values may be altered by exposure to war, however, once again there is little empirical evidence testing this hypothesis. What evidence there is appears to come almost exclusively from one society—Northern Ireland. The suggestion is that children in Northern Ireland may have an underdeveloped sense of the complexity of moral problems. This comes from research using measures of moral reasoning. However, when moral behavior (measured using paper and pencil tests) has been examined, no effect for political violence has been found.

Whatever the explanation, permanent changes in morality are almost certainly not linked to an increase in crime among young people at this time. Juvenile crime does increase with increasing political violence but the most likely explanation for this is the absence of authority figures, such as fathers or the police, combined with extreme levels of deprivation.

4. Social Problems

Of course the ‘normal’ problems that children face during childhood do not evaporate simply because of the onset of political violence, in particular the disadvantages associated with lower socioeconomic status. Therefore, even for children in societies where there is political violence, the major hurdles of everyday life remain to be surmounted. In addition, because political violence can damage the general infrastructure of society, for example, disrupting medical services or the food supply, children may be exposed to many risks other than the obvious problems of dealing with bombs and bullets, including increased risk of accidental injury or death. These conclusions are based on good evidence. Further evidence is also now becoming available to suggest that it is likely that there is a cumulative effect with the direct negative consequences of political violence added to the effects of economic and social disadvantage.

Part of this increased risk may be due, it has been suggested, to the fact that the whole family structure comes under stress as a result of political violence. In particular this may include changes in child-rearing tactics. Further, there is speculation that these changes may carry over to influence the way in which the next generation bring up their children. Unfortunately, despite the importance of this area, the amount of hard evidence is almost negligible. Only the speculation that changes in child-rearing styles accompany exposure to political violence has really been tested and even then only in a very limited way.

In many societies schooling is an important factor in the everyday life of children. Anecdotal evidence suggests that where schools can be kept open they may act as to protect children but this needs to be confirmed empirically. On the other hand, it is clear that political violence can and often does disrupt schooling, either because children do not attend school or because schools are forced to close. The evidence for this is reliable but is confined to developed societies.

5. Child Combatants

Children are not always passive victims of war and/or political violence but may be involved in several different ways. By far the largest of these consists of younger children who are involved at the periphery, often in such overt political activities as rioting or demonstrating. In some societies, however, for example in South Africa and Palestine, this form of activity involved large numbers of young people and their role became central to the political struggle. Older children are more likely to be involved in clandestine activities as members of a terrorist organization. A variety of hypotheses have been entertained as to why children become involved in this form of urban guerrilla warfare. These include the thrill of danger, extension of gang related activities common at this age, or the possibility that they are modeling themselves on adult behavior. A more worrying suggestion is that the role of adult involvement is more overt—the Godfather hypothesis.

This raises the question of the relationship of these children with their families: do families approve, encourage, admire, or do they disapprove? In terms of hard evidence we know very little about these or other questions. Basically we know that children are involved but we don’t know why.

Membership of paramilitary groups or guerrilla armies probably involves smaller numbers of children and young people who, as noted above, are often slightly older than their stone throwing brother and sister. In this area it may be important to recognize two types of groups, anarchic ideologues and nationalist/separatists. Probably more children and young people join the latter.

It is clear that it is not possible to fit these young people into any particular sociodemographic or psychological categories. In particular there is little evidence to support the common claim that guerrilla organizations attract a disproportionate number of psychopathic individuals. Nor is it likely that there is a particular ‘terrorist type’—even with wide criteria such as action oriented, aggressive, and sensation seeking. Instead rewards may play a role such as prestige, glamour, excitement, and even material rewards. It is not clear however if these are the reasons people join in the first place or are these factors which sustain membership?

Rather than suggesting that individuals are motivated to become political activists because of certain psychological characteristics or because of the lure of rewards, it is hypothesized that children are socialized into this role in subtle ways, particularly via the indirect impact of institutions such as the family. Also there is the possibility that schools may influence children’s political ideas in certain societies, especially through the teaching of history. Of course not all history is taught in schools and in more recent times media coverage of other political struggles has also been implicated in this socialization process as paradoxically have prisons. There is also some intriguing qualitative evidence that being a victim or witnessing another become a victim may play a role in stimulating young people to become politically involved.

Finally, the UN convention notwithstanding, it must be remembered that there are still many state-run armies around the world that include children in their ranks. In addition there are many young people, mostly boys (hence the term ‘boy-soldiers’) who are press-ganged into serving, usually with irregular forces.

As conflicts come to an end the fear is often expressed that child member of groups trained to kill or maim will not be able to be resocialized. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this is not necessarily true. One possible explanation, which is yet to be tested empirically, is that a key element in membership of paramilitary groups may be the development of a morality of loyalty which in turn is related to the development of a relevant situated social identity.

This is obviously a very difficult to area in which to get hard evidence. The existing evidence therefore comes from atypical group members, is largely anecdotal, and has mostly been gathered by journalists rather than social scientists. It could be argued, however, that scholars could make more use of these as primary sources. Probably the only thing we can claim to have any firm evidence on is that children and young people who join nationalist separatist guerrilla movements are not psychopaths and come from no particular social strata of society. Other hypotheses including ideas of ‘terrorist personality types’ or psychodynamic explanations will always be very hard to substantiate.

6. Children And Peace

One of the problems, it has been suggested, in bringing peace to societies that have experienced political violence is that the next generation will have either begun to believe that there is no future, or that they will be able to think of the future only in negative terms.

Given that we know little about the way in which children develop concepts of peace and war it could be argued that it is premature to try to educate children to be peace makers. Despite this lack of basic knowledge this process has already begun in some societies and some people apparently believe it is effective. However, there is virtually no empirical evidence to substantiate their claim. A major problem would appear to be that too much of what passes for peace education focuses on interpersonal conflict as opposed to intergroup conflict. In future, curriculum designers need to produce a more effective peace education program and also to overcome the problem that peace education per se is not always politically acceptable.

It could also be argued that school-based peace education is always bound to be ineffective because it targets the wrong people in the wrong setting. For example, there is speculation, if not evidence, that children’s ideas about peace and war may be more influenced by what they learn from their parents than from their schools. There is definitely evidence, which is now often forgotten, that learning about such things as peace and war involves emotions primarily and that providing facts may not alter these emotions. This is obviously an area which is in need of much more research which develops what is known and makes it amenable for use in applied settings.

The alternative to peace education which is most often advocated is bringing children together from opposing groups in order to foster positive intergroup attitudes—the contact hypothesis. This has been a well-researched area for many years and now boasts an extensive literature. What this literature indicates is that for contact to be even minimally effective it has to take place under highly prescribed conditions. However, what advocates of the contact hypothesis appear to be reluctant to accept is that while there is evidence that bringing groups together promotes interpersonal contact satisfactorily, it does not necessarily promote intergroup contact.

There is also good evidence that intergroup conflict can be reduced by manipulating the process of social categorization in order to alter group boundaries. This is a strategy that both social scientists and policy makers should consider more often. The evidence also suggests it is not possible to bring social categorization to an end entirely. Rather it is better to concentrate on altering the content of stereotypes or manipulating who gets put in which social category by altering intergroup boundaries.


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  3. Freud A, Burlingham D T 1943 War and Children. Medical War Books, New York
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