Listening to Children's Voices: Literature and the Arts as Means of Responding to the Effects of War, Terrorism, and Disaster

By Gangi, Jane M.; Barowsky, Ellis | Childhood Education, August 15, 2009 | Go to article overview

Listening to Children's Voices: Literature and the Arts as Means of Responding to the Effects of War, Terrorism, and Disaster


Gangi, Jane M., Barowsky, Ellis, Childhood Education


Since the United Nations set up its office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in 11951, the number of refugees has escalated from one million (Wilkes, 1994) to almost 33 million (UNHCR, 2008). Since the Holocaust, in which six million Jews, as well as millions of Roma, homosexuals, and others were killed, close to five million more people have been victims of genocide; many of those victims have been children (Springer, 2006). During World War I, 20% of the casualties were civilians; in World War II, 50% were civilians; now, 90% of wartime casualties are civilians (Ellis, 2004b; Warren, 2004)--again, many of the victims are children. Children also have been the direct targets in genocidal wars (Pearn, 2003). Millions more children endure and witness atrocities. In the last decade, some 10 million children have been traumatized by war and civil unrest (Hamilton & Moore, 2004). There are 70 million landmines worldwide; close to 40% of those detonated maim or kill children (Mankell, 2003). In sub-Saharan Africa alone, 11.5 million children are orphans because of AIDS; by 2010, that number is expected to almost double (Ellis, 2005).

Clearly, more and more children are forced to deal with crushing hardships. The responsibilities of adults worldwide to attend to the affected children have never been greater. In this article, we first give an overview of the psychological risks for children who experience war, terrorism, and disaster. We then listen to the voices of children through their literature.

Psychological Risks

The impact of genocidal war, armed conflict, and civil strife is measured not only by physical damage, but also by persistent emotional trauma. While physical injury resulting from armed conflict is not to be minimized, children are even more devastatingly affected by the emotional trials of attack and injury, and by the disappearance of their parents, friends, and loved ones. The helplessness of neither knowing whether their family is alive nor having a body to bury fosters an irreconcilable despair in children, as do their subsequent attempts to flee to safety. Thus, children suffer not only from the impact of violence but also from the loss of a secure and predictable environment (Yule, 2000).

Unable to provide for their own safety, children depend heavily upon adults to ensure their survival. Under pervasively threatening conditions, children become emotionally vulnerable (Veenema & Schroeder-Bruce, 2002). When family and community structures break down, children often struggle to re-establish a sense of order. They become prey to the manipulation of authority figures who offer the appearance of rescue and security. This vulnerability, paired with poverty and lost community resources, makes these children more likely targets for recruitment as child soldiers (Uppard, 2003).

The emotional response to violence trauma does not end with the armed conflict, but rather continues through the often prolonged relocation process. Adjustments to accompanying stressors must be addressed at various stages, such as "(1) while in their country of origin; (2) during the flight to safety; and (3) when having to settle in a country of refuge" (Fazel & Stein, 2002, p. 366). This journey from direct target of violence to passage through the gauntlet of asylum-seeking protocol has been shown to leave its mark on children. Traumatic experiences consistently and frequently result in mental health disorders (Barenbaum, Ruchkin, & Schwab-Stone, 2004), including posttraumatic stress disorder (Berman, 2001; Kinzie, Cheng, Tsai, & Riley, 2006; Morgos, Worden, & Gupta, 2007-2008), depression (Thabet, Abed, & Vostanis, 2004), somatization responses (Hinton, Chhean, Fama, Pollack, & McNally, 2007; Mollica, Poole, Son, Murray, & Tor, 1997), anxiety disorders (Al-Jawadi & Abdul-Rhman, 2007), and behavioral acting-out, as well as other internalizing behaviors, such as elective mutism. …

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