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Source: War Child

War and the Traumatised Child

A Child's experience of the world around them is just as unique and individual as that of an adult. Each child will experience their own war and will respond to it in their own unique way. A range of factors mediate this experience: the child's understanding of the conflict and their ideological identification with it; the presence or loss of immediate family; the influence and relationship of the community surrounding them; and most significantly; the ability of these adults to cope.

This is crucial to the understanding of how we can help the child who has been traumatised by war, because it focuses the therapeutic design upon each child's needs rather than those of the therapist and their favoured approach.

While it is understood, then, that each child's experience of war must be respected as unique, research ( 1 ) into the psychological effects of armed conflict does highlight a broad range of behavioural responses. These include: increased anxiety and depression; higher levels of aggressive and violent behaviour; problems with sleep; and in some cases eating disorders. There is also evidence that children exposed to war may develop somatic problems such as headaches, stomach pains and bed-wetting; as well as developmental difficulties like poor concentration, memory impairment and a general deterioration in learning skills. It is now widely accepted that children, like adults, can suffer from the psychiatric disorder of 'Post Traumatic Stress Disorder' (PTSD), which may be diagnosed when a cluster of these traumatic symptoms occur along with recurrent and intrusive recollections of the traumatic event ( 2 ).

Naomi Richman( 3 ), reviewing current research, concludes that children are ,most likely to be at risk from trauma if they have directly suffered violence against themselves or witnessed killing and atrocities, particularly when against a family member. their trauma is further compounded when they lack strong supportive relationships as a consequence of separation, loss and bereavement.

This grieving process itself is often inhibited by traumatic reactions ( 4 ), interfering with the child's ability or desire to remember their loved ones who have died in traumatic circumstances. in particular, instead of experiencing 'grief-dreams', which act to comfort the child, a traumatic loss might only initiate distressing nightmares where the parent or loved one is more an horrific image disrupting their grief than a benevolent comfort.

Clearly there is a need for long-term therapeutic intervention in this area and War Child's preliminary research has identified music as the most safe and effective way forward.


  1. Young Minds : The National Association for Child and Family Mental Health. War and Refugee Children, The Effects of War on Child Mental Health (1994)
  2. Black, D. : Traumatic Bereavement in Children. Highlight 121, National Children's Bureau (1993)
  3. Cited in Young Minds (1994)
  4. Op cit Black (1993)