Children in war zones face permanent mental health consequences, trauma

Growing up in a war zone affects millions of children around the world permanently.

Published : Apr 26, 2024 16:37 IST - 4 MINS READ

People take shelter inside a metro station during a Russian missile strike in Kyiv, Ukraine, on April 11. The world is experiencing its highest levels of violent conflict in at least 30 years, and children disproportionately bear its brunt.

People take shelter inside a metro station during a Russian missile strike in Kyiv, Ukraine, on April 11. The world is experiencing its highest levels of violent conflict in at least 30 years, and children disproportionately bear its brunt. | Photo Credit: ALINA SMUTKO

Around the world, children are disproportionately bearing the brunt of war. Childhood traumas can permanently change how the brain develops, but the effects often are not seen until adulthood.

The world is currently experiencing its highest levels of violent conflict in at least 30 years. Along with the ongoing war in Ukraine and the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza, there are at least 110 armed conflicts taking place across Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Europe. Many of these wars are being fought in cities and crowded civilian areas. Indiscriminate missile and drone strikes across multiple war zones are affecting civilians, schools, hospitals, and children’s shelters.

Officials warn that, more than ever before in modern history, the biggest victims of these geopolitical battles are children. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has repeatedly warned that children are “disproportionately” bearing the brunt of modern conflicts.

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Some of that impact is physical. Many kids living in war zones are recruited into the conflict. Some experience sexual abuse at the hands of armed attackers. But even without direct physical abuse, children in areas of armed conflict experience severe psychological distress.

Children in cities in Ukraine’s frontline areas, for example, have spent between 3,000 and 5,000 hours—equivalent to between four to seven months—sheltering underground since Russia’s invasion two years ago. “The combination of fear, grief, and separation from loved ones is having a massive impact on children as the war drags on. Forty per cent of kids are not attending in-person school,” Leah James, a mental health support specialist at the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), told DW. “The consequences are just massive.”

The result is likely to be disproportionately high levels of mental and psychiatric health issues for millions of people in the future, experts say.

Developmental abnormalities

In Ukraine, a conflict under close monitoring, psychosocial workers are concerned the protracted nature of the Russia-Ukraine war is causing severe developmental delays in children. Christoph Anacker, a neuroscientist at Columbia University in the US, told DW the science bears that concern out. “Early life stressors can cause specific abnormalities in the development and neural circuit function in adulthood, particularly those involved with stress responses,” he said.

Anacker explained that trauma in early childhood changes stress and fear responses in the amygdala, “priming” the brain to be more susceptible to stress in adulthood. Stress hormones are often released more frequently in response to stressors among people who experienced adversity in childhood than those who didn’t, he said. Kids who experience this face an increased risk of anxiety and depression disorders and Alzheimer’s disease later in life.

Although PTSD will always be a concern for individuals experiencing war, whether they are a child or adult, overall “the adult brain is much more resilient to stressors because it’s less plastic”, he said.

Frontline psychologists supporting children and caregivers

In childhood, the brain goes through so-called sensitive periods of development. Overstimulation due to grief or anxiety of being shelled or deprivation of inputs during these periods, like separation from family or a lack of social and emotional stimulation, can essentially rewire the brain, Anacker said.

“There are no effective ways to reverse the effects of childhood trauma when we are adults,” he said. That’s why it’s so important, he explained, to minimize the exposure of stressors to children when they are in this sensitive period of development.

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James said UNICEF has been working to reduce the long-term effects of early life stressors for children growing up in Ukraine. “Some of the interventions we do are simple—ensuring kids have a safe space to play and connect with others, teaching basic coping skills to help deal with grief and separation,” said James. “But a lot of it is about supporting caregivers so they can act as positive role models for kids. Being a caregiver in wartime is incredibly difficult. Relieving their stress impacts their children too.”

James said the programmes have been particularly helpful in identifying children and families who might need more hands-on assistance. However, children in conflicts in other regions are not getting the same support, UNICEF spokesperson Joe English told DW. English explained that “given the scale of the need in conflicts around the world, and the chronic and critical underfunding of humanitarian appeals in general and child protection more specifically, many children are not able to access the support they may require.”

While data about Ukrainian children and families are more readily available, the extent of the issue in other active war zones in the world, including Gaza, Yemen, and South Sudan, is unknown due to the lack of reliable data.

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