How Conflict and Crisis Impact Childhood Development

11 Jan 2022
Explore how conflict and crisis affect childhood, their impacts, and multilevel support for healing.

Understanding Children's Disabilities

The complexities of children's disabilities can be understood more comprehensively by examining the societal and environmental factors that influence a child's development. This includes the impact of poverty and violence, and the risk factors for delinquency among children.

Impact of Poverty and Violence

Many children grow up amid poverty, violence, and illness. They witness their families, friends, and communities suffer from the effects of alcoholism, unemployment, incarceration, AIDS, or a lack of educational opportunities. These factors can significantly impact a child's mental and physical health, as well as their overall development [1].

Moreover, a significant association has been found between exposure to trauma and certain diagnoses in respect to hospitalization. For instance, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) predicts a four times likelihood of having more than one previous hospitalization, with mood disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, and physical abuse increasing the risk by more than twice.

Risk Factors for Delinquency

Risk factors for delinquency among children include unhealthy parental guidance, cognitive and psychological deficits, attending disorganized and disruptive schools, living in chaotic neighborhoods, and being excluded from prosocial peer groups [1].

Notably, only 11% of children in a study came from intact families living with biological parents, while 89% had some sort of disruption in their family structure. Two-thirds of the children had been exposed to trauma, with physical abuse seen in 36% of cases. Seventy-one percent had reported either a parent or a sibling with a psychiatric disorder.

However, it's important to note that protective factors, such as resilient temperament and close relationships with parents and other role models, can help guide at-risk children in making healthy choices and reduce the chance of involvement in serious delinquency.

It's evident that children's disabilities and the risk factors for delinquency are influenced by a myriad of societal and environmental factors. In understanding these factors, we can work towards creating comprehensive interventions and support systems that address these issues at their root, fostering healthier and safer environments for children to grow and thrive in.

Mental Health and Psychosocial Support

When exploring how conflict and crisis affect childhood, it's crucial to understand the role of mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS). This support can be delivered through various interventions, focusing on both family and community levels.

Family-Based Interventions

Family-based interventions play a pivotal role in providing mental health and psychosocial support to children affected by conflict and crisis. These interventions focus on strengthening the familial bonds and providing a secure environment for the child's development. Protective factors, such as resilient temperament and close relationships with parents and other role models, can guide at-risk children in making healthy choices and reduce the chance of involvement in serious delinquency.

However, disruptions in family structure can lead to several adverse events impacting both the mental health of children and their parents. For instance, studies have found that children from single/divorced families were less likely to have been exposed to sexual abuse but more likely to have a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) compared to other types of families. Furthermore, exposure to trauma has been associated with certain diagnoses, with ADHD predicting a 4 times likelihood of having more than one previous hospitalization.

Community-Level Interventions

Community-level interventions also play a significant role in supporting children affected by conflict and crisis. These interventions focus on creating a supportive community environment that can help mitigate the impact of conflict and crisis on a child's mental health. However, very few studies evaluated the effectiveness of community-level interventions, suggesting a gap in the research.

The social ecological model of risk and protection for children affected by armed conflict includes the individual, microsystem (attachment relationships), mesosystem (child care institutions and schools), exosystem (major agencies and governments), and macrosystem (cultural, historical, and political context). This model underlines the importance of multilevel, trauma-informed, and need-oriented interventions. Such interventions should provide immediate aid and intervention, assess and screen for mental health burden, provide evidence-based interventions for groups and individuals, provide appropriate post-migration infrastructures and social environments, support parents, and address the needs of indirectly affected children.

In conclusion, both family-based and community-level interventions are crucial in providing mental health and psychosocial support to children affected by conflict and crisis. The interaction between risk and protective factors operating across a child's social ecology shapes the mental health of war-affected children, emphasizing the need for comprehensive and trauma-informed interventions [5].

Effects of Conflict and Crisis

Conflict and crisis situations, unfortunately, have a profound impact on children, affecting not only their physical well-being but also their mental health. It's essential to delve into the mental health distress in children and the social ecological model of risk and protection to comprehensively understand how conflict and crisis affect childhood.

Mental Health Distress in Children

Research has documented the ways in which exposure to war-related traumatic events contributes to subsequent mental health distress and psychopathology in children and adolescents [5]. According to UNICEF, conflicts in the last decade have killed an estimated 2 million children and have left another 6 million disabled, 20 million homeless, and over 1 million separated from their parents.

Such experiences can lead to severe emotional distress, anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and other mental health issues. These issues, if not addressed timely and appropriately, can have long-lasting impacts, affecting a child's cognitive development, academic performance, interpersonal relationships, and overall quality of life.

Social Ecological Model of Risk and Protection

The mental health of war-affected children must be viewed as a dynamic process, shaped by trauma, psychological adjustment, resilience, and the child's social ecology. Resilience is not solely an individual quality of certain 'invulnerable' children, but rather a process shaped by the interaction between risk and protective factors operating across a child's social ecology [5].

The social ecological model of risk and protection for children affected by armed conflict includes the individual, microsystem (attachment relationships), mesosystem (child care institutions and schools), exosystem (major agencies and governments), and macrosystem (cultural, historical, and political context).

Understanding this model is crucial as it helps identify the multiple levels of influence on a child's mental health and the complex interplay between these influences. This can guide the development of comprehensive, multi-level interventions that address not only the individual child's needs but also the broader social, cultural, and political factors that affect their mental health.

In conclusion, the detrimental effects of conflict and crisis on children's mental health cannot be overlooked. It is crucial to provide children in such situations with adequate psychosocial support and interventions that can help mitigate the impact of such experiences and promote resilience. This requires a comprehensive understanding of the social ecological model of risk and protection and a multi-level approach to mental health support.

Risks Faced by Children in Conflict Zones

Children living in conflict zones face a multitude of risks that have severe and lasting impacts on their well-being and development. These risks range from the direct threats of violence and exploitation to the disruption of education and mental health support systems.

Vulnerability to Abuse and Exploitation

Children are especially vulnerable to abuse and exploitation during times of conflict. The International Rescue Committee reports that nearly 3,000 children were killed across 24 conflict-affected countries in 2022. In Gaza alone, the conflict resulted in the death of over 4,500 children [7].

In addition to physical violence, children and women in conflict zones are at a heightened risk of gender-based violence, including rape, sexual humiliation, and prostitution. Adolescent girls are particularly vulnerable to such abuses.

Furthermore, the dangers of landmines and unexploded ordnance pose a significant threat to children in conflict zones. With an estimated 110 million landmines worldwide, children's natural curiosity puts them at higher risk of encountering these dangers.

Impact on Education and Mental Health Support

Conflict and crisis also disrupt the provision of essential services, such as education and mental health support. Over half of Gaza's schools, for instance, have been damaged due to conflict, leaving more than 625,000 children without access to safe learning.

The loss of education is compounded by the urgent need for mental health and psychosocial support in conflict regions. Hundreds of thousands of children living in these areas are in desperate need of such support to help them cope with the traumatic experiences they have endured.

Moreover, armed conflict has both direct and indirect consequences on child health, resulting in thousands of deaths each year. Indirect consequences include the disruption of food supplies, destruction of health services, and lack of access to clean water and sanitation. Death rates can increase by up to 24 times in poor countries already vulnerable to malnutrition and disease [8].

In conclusion, understanding the risks faced by children in conflict zones is crucial for developing and implementing effective interventions to support their physical and mental well-being. This includes not only addressing the immediate threats of violence and exploitation but also ensuring the continuity of education and mental health support services.

Long-Term Consequences

The impact of conflict and crisis on children's mental health and development is profound and can lead to long-term consequences. Children exposed to such traumatic experiences can develop various mental health disorders and face difficulties associated with separation and displacement.

Mental Health Disorders in War-Exposed Children

Children exposed to war and conflict have a higher prevalence of mental disorders, such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety, compared to the general population. The impact of war and forced displacement can result in persistent impairment in health, well-being, and developmental potential.

The table below shows the estimated prevalence of mental disorders among war-exposed children:

Data source: NCBI

Children exposed to war and flight show a broad range of distress and stress reactions, including specific fears, dependent behavior, aggression, and psychosomatic symptoms. Their play can also be affected, with morbid themes, restriction in fantasy play, and social withdrawal [6].

Effects of Separation and Displacement

War often results in children becoming separated from one or both parents, which can have negative effects on their social-emotional development and mental health. The loss of safe places and the sense of safety due to flight and forced migration can add to their distress and stress.

Only 11% of children in a study had intact families living with biological parents, while 89% had some kind of disruption in their family structure. Single parenthood becomes a clear risk factor for mental health problems for both children and adults, leading to greater psychological distress and depression. Several studies have also documented the link between separation and depressive disorders. Single-parent families are also suggested to have less resilience when confronting stress.

Therefore, it is essential to understand how conflict and crisis affect childhood and give attention to the various support mechanisms and interventions that can help mitigate these effects. The long-term consequences of war and conflict require a comprehensive approach to ensure the mental and emotional well-being of the affected children.

Interventions and Support

In addressing the impact of conflict and crisis on childhood, it is critical to implement interventions and support mechanisms that are responsive to the unique and complex needs of children affected by such circumstances.

Multilevel Trauma-Informed Approaches

Research indicates that interventions to support war-affected children should be multilevel, trauma-informed, and need-oriented [6]. Such approaches may include immediate aid and intervention, assessment and screening for mental health burdens, and the provision of evidence-based interventions for groups and individuals. They should also aim to provide appropriate post-migration infrastructures and social environments, support parents, and address the needs of indirectly affected children.

The effectiveness of these interventions may be influenced by various factors, including the specific context of the conflict, the age of the child, and the presence of other risk factors. Therefore, a comprehensive assessment of the child's needs and circumstances is crucial to inform the design and implementation of the intervention.

Addressing Family Structure Disruption

Family structure disruption is a significant concern in conflict and crisis situations, with profound implications for the mental health of children. In a study, only 11% of children came from intact families living with biological parents, while 89% had experienced some kind of family structure disruption.

Such disruptions can lead to several adverse events that impact the mental health of children and their parents. For instance, the presence of a stepparent has been found to increase the risk of abuse, and parents exposed to abuse in their own childhood or domestic violence are more prone to act aggressively towards their own children.

Moreover, single parenthood is a clear risk factor for mental health problems in both children and adults, leading to greater psychological distress and depression. The prevalence of poverty in single-parent families has been estimated to be as high as 50%, compared to around 5% in two-parent intact families. This economic disadvantage can lead to higher rates of emotional and behavioral problems in children [9].

Addressing these issues necessitates a multifaceted approach that includes interventions at the individual, family, and community levels. This may involve providing mental health support and counselling for children and parents, implementing social protection measures to mitigate the impact of poverty, and fostering a supportive community environment that promotes the well-being of all children.

In conclusion, understanding how conflict and crisis affect childhood and developing appropriate responses are imperative to mitigate their long-term impact and support the healthy development of children.

References

[1]: https://ojjdp.ojp.gov/sites/g/files/xyckuh176/files/action/sec4.htm

[2]: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5559994/#ref10

[3]: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5559994/#ref9

[4]: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9990564/

[5]: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2613765/

[6]: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9209349/

[7]: https://www.rescue.org/article/5-crises-affecting-child-health-worldwide

[8]: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4921424/

[9]: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5559994/#ref4

[10]: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5559994/#ref2

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