Children's response to war can be seen through the prism of their reaction to danger and trauma. Danger refers to the possibility of moral, physical or psychological harm. The feeling of danger is subjective, and does not necessarily reflect the objective presence of danger.
Children who have been exposed to war generally display poor judgment about risk and liability to injury. They often sense danger in situations that are normally considered benign or unlikely to cause harm. At the other extreme, some children with war experiences have an underactivated risk sensibility. Situations that social standards deem terrifying and imminent have little effect on these children.
The forces that change socially accepted norms of danger, and the forces that push children away from the norms, change with the times. When we are more aware of risks, we feel more compelled to act safely. Consequently, we will feel guiltier if we are harmed. Children who experience war develop norms that differ from those of the greater society.
Trauma is a disordered mental state resulting from stress or physical injury. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a state that can occur after exposure to trauma, in adults or children. According to the American Psychiatric Association, diagnostic criteria for PTSD include the following:
• Exposure to a stressor that would cause distress to most people;
• Re-experiencing the trauma through intrusive recollections, recurrent dreams or a feeling that it is recurring;
• Diminished interest in activities, a feeling of detachment or limited show of emotion;
• An exaggerated startle response, sleep disturbance, survivors guilt, poor concentration or avoidance of activities that remind one of the traumatic event.
Normal children who are exposed to an acute danger as a one-time experience, such as a school shooting, can adjust without developing PTSD. Reassurance is an effective therapy, helping the child recognize that the disturbance is gone, and the environment has resumed its normal and safe status.
In contrast, chronic danger such as war requires developmental adjustment or mental accommodations. The changes are likely to involve PTSD, personality and behavior modifications and a world view that makes sense of continual danger. Research and observations have found that children of war are at risk for physical damage, developmental impairment and emotional trauma. They are likely to develop dysfunctional methods of coping with the world, based on a model of violence and fear.
Several factors have been found to help children with stressful life events. Proactively coping with stress instead of just reacting, a supportive educational environment and parents who model good coping skills all give protection against maladaptation. Children with average or above-average intelligence and a sociable and active personality are also likely to adapt well. Additionally, the sense of self that comes from achievements and social support from non-family members are ameliorating factors.
However, these coping methods were studied in relationship to stressors that might occur in a modern industrial society, such as family conflict, poverty or parental drug abuse. In war, when children are at high risk of developing maladaptive behaviors, these factors are less likely to grant strong protective effects.
The children who fare best during war, at least in the short run, are those who live with protective parents who give them a sense of security through day-to-day routines. Those children can develop positive self-esteem. Yet trauma often reemerges long after the fact, with emotional and behavioral implications reaching far into adulthood.
Aside from PTSD, children in war are prone to identification with the aggressor. That means they model their own behavior on enemy soldiers or other powerful aggressors who create the dangerous environment. The most likely recruits for terrorist violence are people who experienced chronic danger as children. Chronic danger seems to cut short the moral development of children, creating a mentality primed for vendettas. In studies, children raised in less violent areas had progressed to more advanced moral reasoning by early adolescence.
The long-term prognosis for children exposed to war is not good. Yet many resilient children have survived with their psyches intact. The ability of the adults in the community to reassure and protect the children, even as they struggle to understand the events of war, strongly affects children's responses.