The Effects on Children Caught In The Middle Of Conflict
Dr. Kathryn Seifert, PhD, CFC
Traumatic events in childhood can, if not handled effectively by adults, interfere with the development of basic coping skills (van der Kolk B. M., 2006), brain structures, and neurotransmitters (van der Kolk B. A., 2003). Additionally, aversive childhood experiences can lead to negative outcomes in adulthood, such as mental illness, substance abuse, and severe physical illnesses (Centers for Disease Control, 2006). Children living in a war zone have aversive and traumatic experiences. The sad reality is that it is happening today and every day in the Middle East and Africa, from Syria to Gaza and the Democratic Republic of Congo to Mali.
Children there, who are traumatized by being exposed to conflict and war, are normal children in unbelievable circumstances. Some are less vulnerable than others to the negative effects of war because they have strong coping skills, are older in age, have adult support, or are not directly exposed to the war. The more chronic and severe the exposure to the violent and life-threatening environment and the fewer the supports and protections, the worse the effects can be on children (van der Kolk B. M., 2006). A child who has prior trauma can also be more severely affected by war and its terror.
Children are especially vulnerable to the effects of wars and conflicts because they are in the process of growing up and learning about life and how to cope and because they need safety to effectively complete the developmental process in a healthy way (van der Kolk B. M., 2006). If they are traumatized while in the process of maturing, the entire process of maturation can be interrupted or significantly damaged. Trauma can be a factor in causing them to stay at an earlier developmental stage (less than five years of age) where physical fighting to get one’s needs met is preferred over social problem-solving (Tremblay R. E., 2005). These children may be hyper-vigilant and startle easily, avoiding anything that reminds them of combat, and show signs of PTSD. Fighting can become a survival approach, replacing the need to learn about verbal or social negotiations. These children become more reactive than proactive working primarily from a self-protective rather than a problem-solving stance.
As an example, many saw the startling video of a young boy led by an adult shooting two prisoners with a handgun . Young boys are taught what is right and wrong and what it is to be a man by their early role models (American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 2011). This young boy is being taught to be a soldier and to wage war before he has the capacity to understand human relationships, religious concepts, or empathy. This certainly will shape his character and behavior for the rest of his life.
Additionally, in some African and Middle Eastern countries, it is through brutal indoctrination and fear that child soldiers are brainwashed to become heartless fighters (UNICEF, n.d.). This process changes their brains and cortisol levels so that they are in a constant state of fight, but never flight. They are in survival mode. These are the children that are recruited by ISIS, Al Qaeda, and local militias to take part in their fight against their enemies. Without maternal nurturing, they cannot develop the ability to see things from another person’s point of view or empathy (Ainsworth, 1965). It is a cycle destined to repeat itself with decades, even centuries of wars. They are creating generations of soldiers before the child soldiers understand human relationships or war.
The news has reported that British, Canadian, Australian, and American youth have left their homes to join ISIS and fight for the establishment of an Islamic State. Some of these youth feel they do not fit into the US culture of teens nor the homeland culture of their parents (Bhatt, 2007). Some have been abused and neglected, exposed to domestic violence, have become traumatized and do not receive the help they need. Consequently, they can remain in the stage where fighting is the preferred way of dealing with others in life (Tremblay R. E., 2005). They may be drawn to a group like ISIS or into gangs where they can be rewarded for fighting, leading to a sense or feeling of belonging. They become indoctrinated and will go where they can use their favored social strategy, be it in a war or a gang (Ellickson, 2000).
War may be necessary to fight a brutal enemy such as ISIS, but if we do not want to continue to repeat the cycle of war, trauma, and retaliation, we must care for all of the victims of war. We must do it well and we must do it now. We fight groups like ISIS to protect innocent victims from them physically, but war itself victimizes children psychologically and we must take care of their emotional needs, as well. If we do not take care of the mental health needs of the children, they may grow up to be the next generation to go to war more because of their PTSD than a specific cause.
Ainsworth, M. a. (1965). Child Care and the Growth of Love. London: Penguin Books.
American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (2011, September). Children and Role Models. Retrieved from Facts for Families: http://www.aacap.org/App_Themes/AACAP/docs/facts_for_families/99_children_and_role_models.pdf
Bhatt, M. D. (2007). Radicalization in the West: New York, New York, US: New York City Police Department. Retrieved from http://www1.nyc.gov/html/nypd/downloads/pdf/public_information/NYPD_Report-Radicalization_in_the_West.pdf
Centers for Disease Control. (2006). Centers for Disease Control Aversive Childhood Experiences Study. Retrieved from Centers for Diseaase Control: http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/
Ellickson, P. L. (2000). Early predictors of adolescent violence. American Journal of Public Health, 90(4), 566-572.
Tremblay, R. E. (2005). Developmental origins of aggression. NY: Guilford Press.
UNICEF. (n.d.). Children as Soldiers. Retrieved from Children in War: http://www.unicef.org/sowc96/2csoldrs.htm
van der Kolk, B. A. (2003). The neurobiology of childhood trauma and abuse. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 12, 293-317.
van der Kolk, B. M. (2006). Traumatic Stress: The Effects of Overwhelming Experience on Mind, Body, and Society. NY, NY: Guilford Press.
Dr. Kathryn Seifert, PhD, CFC, is a renowned expert, with over thirty years of experience, and a leading voice internationally, in the areas of violence, mental health, bullying, criminal justice and addictions. She is the CEO of Eastern Shore Psychological Services (ESPS), a multidisciplinary private practice based out of Maryland that works with high-risk youth and their families. Dr. Seifert specializes in the assessment and treatment of individuals, who are at risk for violence and those who are emotionally disturbed, behaviorally disordered, victimized, delinquent, and/or are suffering from attachment disorders. Frequently called upon by national television networks to discuss violence and mental health, Dr. Seifert has interviewed on Anderson Cooper 360 on CNN, the Huffington Post Live, Discovery ID, Fox News, and CBC in Canada. She has appeared on numerous radio shows and local television programs.
Dr. Seifert has written two books on youth violence. Her first book How Children Become Violent: Keeping Your Kids out of Gangs, Terrorist Organizations, and Cults, (Acanthus Publishing 2006) was awarded the 2007 IPPY (Independent Book Publishers Award) bronze medal in the Psychology/Mental Health category. Her second book Youth Violence: Theory, Prevention, and Intervention (Springer Publishing 2011) is written for the professional community and is frequently used in courses and training sessions where this content is a component of the curriculum.
Dr. Seifert has received national recognition for her CARE-2 Assessment: Chronic Violent Behavior and Treatment Needs (Acanthus Publishing, 2007-2012), an assessment tool widely utilized by social workers, teachers, court personnel, and medical professionals, designed to identify youth who are at risk for violent behavior. It is the only assessment of its kind that provides a comprehensive intervention plan to prevent future aggressive outbursts. In 2013, she received a $250,000 grant from the Maryland Industrial Partnerships program to test the accuracy of the assessment, which she is currently working on in partnership with Salisbury University and the Department of Juvenile Services. Dr. Seifert is also the author of the AVRRT™, which enables professionals to provide risk reductions for mentally ill and autistic males 15-40.
As an expert contributor for Psychology Today, Dr. Seifert authors the "Stop the Cycle" blog, which has amassed over 150,000 views in the past two years, and 25,000 alone between May 1st and June 30th, 2014. She has published more than 50 articles in various publications and websites and been interviewed for countless more. Her expertise has appeared on The Daily Beast and Yahoo News and major U.S. dailies such as the Washington Post, Hartford Courant, and the Baltimore Sun. She has become the 'go-to' source for news outlets covering incidents of multi-victim violence. Dr. Seifert also appeared in the second season of the television documentary series on LME entitled Killer Kids providing expert analysis on several cases of horrific violence committed by young people. Dr. Seifert has a free bi-weekly e-newsletter, which is sent out to over 1,000 subscribers, and she also is active on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter.
Dr. Seifert has lectured internationally and is highly sought after speaker to address conventions, discussion forums, and gatherings of mental health, criminal justice and education professionals. She has spoken in Switzerland, Canada, the Netherlands, and across the United States. Select conferences and events include Maryland Psychological Association Annual Conference, Pennsylvania's NAMI Cherry Blossom Charity Ball, and the Conference on the Federal Response to Reducing Gun Violence, which took place following the Sandy Hook tragedy and was headlined by Vice President Joe Biden. In recent years, she has devoted a significant amount of time to research for her upcoming book Failure to Attach: The Why Behind Terrorists and Mass Murderers.
Publisher Dr. Robert O'Block, American College of Forensic Examiners.