Children's Mental Health & Armed Conflicts | How to Explain War to Kids

Children's Mental Health & Armed Conflicts | How to Explain War to Kids

Children suffer a lot mentally during war and armed conflicts. It is because they are suddenly exposed to an environment where schools and healthcare facilities are either destroyed or used by the army. Moreover, displaced and refugee children find it exceedingly hard to adjust to the places.

Kids usually don’t understand the conflicts between parties to the war, but when they see disturbing images of war on the news, they may start wondering: what is happening? Seeing the news showing how families have to say goodbye to the soldiers, children feel sad. They may wonder what if they have to leave their parents as well.

If kids have one or both of their parents in the military, they are likely to face issues of uncertainty or separation. Even if they have a sports coach or some other person who’s deployed for military duty, they feel bad.

Small kids and even older children struggle a lot with polarising opinions about problems that involve war or conflict. Their mind is constantly looking for answers to some concerning questions. Such as, what things to do on both the national and global level to resolve the problems.

So, it becomes important for parents to talk to kids about armed conflicts, and assist children to understand what is going on and help to provide them with a sense of safety and security.

What is Children’s Mental Health & Why Does it Matter?

The good mental health of children means reaching specific emotional and developmental milestones. Meanwhile, they need to learn some healthy social skills. And, how to cope with certain problems. If the kids enjoy good mental health, they lead a positive life. Hence, they are friendly at home, in educational institutes, and in other communities.

However, various mental disorders in children often cause some serious issues. For instance, the way they behave, learn, or tackle various emotions. This further leads to various causes of problems and distress in getting through a day. Many kids often experience worries and some internal fears. And, they start expressing these emotions through their disruptive behaviours.

Are these symptoms persistent and causing problems in home, school, or play activities? If so, they are dealing with some mental disorder. Children facing mental disorders may show a strange behaviour than those with no mental disorders. It is because they have distinct strengths and weaknesses. And, also have different ways of coping with various life situations. So, it is vital to identify specific mental disorders. It is possible by thoroughly understanding how well your children are doing in life.

The significance of good mental health is that it helps in the better growth and development of a child. It is also helpful for kids to build positive emotional and social behaviour. Meanwhile, it helps in improving their communication and thinking skills; it even lays an important foundation for leading better well-being and mental health.

Human Rights and Mental Health

Children with mental disorders are often subjected to discrimination, stigma, and victimization. They also grow vulnerable to different violations of their specific rights. It also affects their ability to exercise their civil and political rights. This even includes their right to act in public affairs. All this even impacts their decision-making process on problems that impact their normal lives.

Since the past few years, the European Union under the European Mental Health Action Plan 2013–2020 has been working on the rights of people dealing with mental health issues.

The WHO and EU support this goal and work with the Member States. Together, they work to align their mental health legislation and policies. This is usually done as per basic human rights and mental health standards. It helps in promoting better access to good quality mental health care. And, also protects their rights with mental health conditions.

“Every person with a mental illness shall have the right to exercise all civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights as recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and in other relevant instruments, such as the Declaration on the Rights of Disabled Persons and the Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment.” — United Nations, Secretariat Centre for Human Rights.

Not just the European region, other nations also need to work on basic human rights and mental health issues during armed conflicts. This is how different countries can collaborate to promote a recovery-based approach. It is helpful in the formation of better mental health services without any abuse, violence, or coercion.

How Do War and Armed Conflicts Affect the Mental Health of Children?

War and armed conflicts affect children in different ways. After seeing bloodshed and fights, children face various challenges, such as:

  • Lack of basic resources: During war and armed conflicts, the necessities of life are cut down. For instance, there are no school, proper shelter, health care, recreational facilities, food, and water. It makes it difficult to provide an adequate environment for children. So, they cannot foster healthy social and cognitive growth and development.

  • Pessimistic outlook: One of the major impacts that we see on children due to war is the loss of hope. When they start to feel hopeless, they form a give-up attitude in their mind. It is because they stop taking steps to build a better future for themselves. In many refugee camps, children start growing up with a feeling of loss. They feel they have lost everything and there is nothing they can do to make a better living. The war experiences can make children go cynical about adults and the society around them. After all, it’s not their fault to start a war or armed conflict. But still, they are suffering for no reason. This makes them develop a pessimistic outlook over time.

  • Disrupted relationships with family: During armed conflicts, many children’s family members get killed or kidnapped. And, others are unwillingly taken or forced to join armies. The loss of family members puts considerable stress or worries on children. It is because their biggest support system (i.e., their family) is disrupted during the war conditions. When their parents or other family members feel emotional impact, children feel the same. And, the situation leaves them with an incomplete family. Sometimes, war stress even aggravates family violence. It further leads to a violent pattern that passes on to the children.

  • Discrimination and stigma: Due to their parents or family members joining armies during conflict situations, children often get stigmatized. Plus, hostile environments inhibit kids from attending educational institutes. Even parents are not able to earn money. So, they cannot provide the much-needed essentials to their kids. Furthermore, attack and discrimination may lead to identity build-up. Such as, they start seeing themselves as victims. It can fill hatred and violence in them.

  • Normalising violence: Most children (who are exposed to violent acts during their basic developmental years) start accepting violent acts as normal. This has a major impact on their minds, as young people are at a high risk of following similar violent cycles in life. When these kids grow up as parents, they also start using violence as the basic way to discipline their children or to deal with any conflict with their partner.

How to Explain War/Armed Conflict to a Child

Whenever children are exposed to news about armed conflicts or war, there should be a general conversation around this situation. It is because if parents don’t share with them what’s going on, the children will start interpreting things on their own. Plus, they will be at high risk of developing misunderstandings, emotional reactions, and behavioural changes.

Currently, the war between Russia and Ukraine is getting so much coverage on media channels. It is a sensitive but important topic to explain to the kids about what is happening in a war situation. Children must not live in their bubble. They need to know about such unfavourable incidents and events. Also, make them understand that such incidents may happen anywhere.  

When explaining war and armed conflicts to kids, parents need to focus on the learning component. For instance, they need to know how harmful and bad things are. And, why do countries need to avoid such conflicts. Also, explain why we all should seek peace over violence.

Some parents may find it hard to make a conversation with their children. Especially, if children are not talking about their anxiety openly. In this situation, it is best to figure out what they already know and how they are feeling about the existing situation. And, when the children start sharing their thoughts, it will help them decrease their anxiety levels.

Some children may find it hard to express their feelings in the right words or manner. No matter what the situation, it is important to listen to what’s in your child’s mind. Parents and teachers have to be patient with them and validate their feelings as an important part of their mental development.

If children are between the age groups of 6-12, it is hard to make them understand the clear picture of war. For this, you can simplify things while explaining the situation based on their interest and their ability to understand complex information. If you feel your child can understand such situations, you can share the information with them in small portions. It is because they must not feel overwhelmed with all the details.

While discussing war and armed conflicts, make sure your children’s routines are normal. It is best to use writing, reading, or other creative ways (like painting) to help express their feelings. Also, find the right teaching moments when they are watching something. Look for open-ended spaces to talk to them about difficult situations.

Impact of War and Armed Conflicts on the Mental Health of Children

War can impact children in different ways than it affects adults. However, it is not the same as dealing with adults. It is because, children are dependent on the empathy, care, and attention of adults who love and care for them. But their attachment disrupts during war situations. It happens due to the loss of parents, emotional unavailability of distracted parents. And, due to extreme preoccupation of parents trying to protect their family.

During these trying times, children may be living in the substitute care of someone else. For instance, they are in the care of relatives or orphanages. So, there’s no parent protection when they are in substitute care or in refugee camps. Such situation leaves children feeling a lack of love and care.

Second, there is a major impact on their childhood. It is because war can adversely impact the life trajectory of young minds as compared to adults. As they start living in refugee camps, they start dealing with miserable circumstances. And, these situations are difficult for them to normalize.

Imagine, a child losing his/her limb or cognitive ability. Or a raped girl during a war conflict. These situations are too harsh for young minds. Due to these circumstances, they start losing hope of having a better life. Even after the war, they won’t be able to cope with things for a long time.

Risk Factors Associated with Children’s Mental Health During the War

According to various studies, there are various risk factors associated with kids’ mental health at times of war and armed conflicts. Generally, women have a higher vulnerability to face various psychological consequences related to war. There has been proven evidence of the major impact of distress that’s correlated between children and mothers during war circumstances. For instance, there’s maternal depression in the pre and postnatal periods at times of such stressful situations. This further leads to poorer growth in community-dependent infants.

Often, traditional birth attendants and social support providers play the main role in the promotion of psycho-social well-being during maternal periods. It is mainly in war-affected regions. Despite any vulnerability, women have an important role in sustaining their families even during stressful conditions.

Likewise, there is much evidence showing higher trauma rates and psychological issues in children. There is a direct link between the number of psychological issues and the degree of trauma, as per various studies. The higher the trauma exposure, the higher are the pronounced symptoms among children.

Therefore, it is important to provide constant support to traumatized individuals, both psychologically and physically. This helps in minimizing war-related traumas while decreasing their impact.

Post-War & Long-Term Impact of War on Children’s Mental Health

Dealing with trauma impacts kids’ cognitive and mental development. Generally, the stress response gets activated when children are confronted with adversity. Due to the stress, there is an adverse impact on their brain and other organs’ development. Meanwhile, it increases cognitive, emotional, and psychopathology impairment in affected children; this may even have some permanent changes to overall brain function.

Furthermore, children’s social and emotional development also disrupts due to major trauma. Mental health issues often diminish their ability to deal with everyday situations. For instance, they cannot properly concentrate in school and also cannot build meaningful relations with peers.

Sometimes traumatised kids don’t even pursue further education. Furthermore, they suffer from poor sleep, PTSD, poor health, and high body mass indexes. Even mental health issues go with societal rejection and stigma among war-affected children.

Therefore, it becomes essential to work on their mental health improvement with proper psychological intervention programs.

How to Heal (or Avoid) Impacts of War on Children’s Mental Health?

Children who suffer due to war and armed conflicts need proper care from clinicians who are usually familiar with the same types of mental health risks. The specialists often know how to take care of traumatised children from distinct backgrounds. With proper care programs, there have been reports of positive changes in patients looking for better outcomes.

There are specific disaster training programs or courses by professional clinicians. These courses are often conducted by general paediatricians and specialists working in conflict settings. They are well-versed in dealing with the circumstances that refugee children are facing. They work slowly, but their strategies have a positive impact on the mental development of war inflicted psychological wounds of children. Furthermore, they take care of their special mental and physical health care requirements.

Country-specific military, child-focused non-government organizations, and multilateral international organizations often have good experience in taking care of traumatized children. Special child-friendly spaces are helpful for supporting well-being and resilience in children. The professionals conduct well-structured activities in a child-friendly, safe, and happier environment. All this helps in addressing the behavioural, psychological, and physical health of affected children.

Integration of Children Affected by War or Armed Conflicts

Here are some specific factors to keep in mind when creating programs for children affected by war and armed conflicts:

  • There should be a proper discussion among NGOs, country-specific agencies, governments, and donors for handling the challenges of youth in conflict.
  • Formation of safe spaces, recreational areas, and youth centres to let children interact, play, and develop easily.
  • Integration of special children and youth programs and humanitarian programs to make sure their issues get addressed.
  • Resolving issues that children face during the conflict.
  • Don’t consider children with trauma as a problem. Youth programs must see affected children as a normal part of society. The whole communities need proper mobilization, not just a specific age group or targeted community. So, it is important to follow cross-cutting and holistic approaches with the more useful network.
  • When war-affected children are accounted for diversity and not treated just as a homogenous group, they are likely to feel like an important part of society. So, activities and special programs need to be specific on what they intend by the term ‘youth’ and which particular demographic are they willing to reach out to.
  • Make youth part of decision-making, assessments, and planning during any specific humanitarian response.
  • Organise youth-led interventions to counter the extremist narratives. Meanwhile, promote non-violent and tolerance-related conflict resolutions. It helps them build peach while drawing on innate community resilience. This is how they can develop more demographic strength, including governance.
  • Programs must focus on taking care of children in various conflict-impacted and crisis-affected regions. This forms a positive impact on their minds. Plus, they get to learn about some better ways of employment and connecting with society. That too, without feeling any sort of discrimination.
  • Provide them better access to necessities, like healthcare and education. Young people need to become aware of their surroundings and the latest events around them.
  • Focus more on pull factors (like ideology, group norms, and religion) instead of the push factors (situations alienating people or circumstances that make them society, like youth unemployment, poverty, elite impunity, inadequate public services, etc.). When affected children get adequate opportunities to grow, they feel worthy of support.

Conventions and Legal Protection of Children Affected by War

Besides making the most of the general protection for civilians, affected children are well-protected by International Humanitarian Law. First, they are protected from participation and recruitment in hostilities (Article 77 of Protocol I is aimed at prohibiting direct participation in hostilities of kids under 15 years of age. Even Art 4, 3(c) of Protocol II prohibits any of their indirect participation.

As per Rome Statute, the recruitment, and participation of kids (under 15 years of age) in hostilities is seen as an international crime. It is a crime in both non-international and national war/armed conflicts.

Second, they are protected with several other provisions that address their particular vulnerabilities. Such provisions include children’s protection from various impacts of hostilities (evacuation, sanitary zones) protection of personal status, cultural environment, provision of special aid and care (food, medicine, clothing), education, protection of personal status and community ties, or limitation to the death penalty. Furthermore, the provisions also need to work on the regulation of the proper treatment of interned or detained youth and children.

How to Nurture Good Mental Health in Children

Here’s how you can nurture good mental health in children to develop caring relationships:

  • Children need to work on building strong relationships with peers and family. So, do spend time with them during breakfast or dinner.
  • Teach children to solve various problems.
  • A significant individual who is always involved with children is important to help them build resilience. This individual is also likely to spend a lot of time with a child. So, he/she must know their importance in turning children into strong and responsible human beings. Plus, this influential person must be present in their life in times of crisis to guide them to a correct path.

Here’s how you can develop self-esteem in children and make them feel good:

  • Show lots of acceptance, love, and care to detained children.
  • Ask questions about their interests and activities.
  • Praise them whenever they excel at a certain task. Also, identify their efforts and achievements.
  • Encourage children to talk about their feelings—good or bad.
  • Help them find someone with whom they can share their feelings without any discomfort.
  • Be available for them for communication and conversation. Generally, mealtime is the best time to discuss and communicate with them.

Create a positive and safe environment at home:

  • Be careful about sharing serious family issues, like marital issues, finances, or illness, with kids. Often children are stressed too much over such things. If you want to share these things, be sensitive and tell them that it’s OK to deal with such situations sometimes.
  • Provide them enough time for play, physical activities, and family activities.
  • Keep a check on your children’s media usage—both the amount of time spent on the phone screens and the content they watch. It includes movies, TV, the internet, and various gaming devices. You should know who they are interacting with on online and social media platforms.
  • Take time to discuss their feelings and make them feel comfortable, especially during the war and armed conflicts.
  • Discuss possible ideas or solutions to make a situation better. But don’t let things take over children’s mental health.
  • Teach your children about ways to relax when they are stressed. It may be deep breathing, yoga, taking time off for an alone time, or going out for a walk.

The Crux

The occurrence of various mental health issues in children during war/armed conflicts if widely observed in various researches. Some studies have also shown ways to develop resilience in affected children when they face the worst trauma in war circumstances.

Undoubtedly, children in armed conflicts and war situations need to get mental health care for reconstruction and rehabilitation of the mind. Therefore, they should follow the aforementioned ways to heal and nurture their mental health and well-being.

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