The emotional impact of protracted conflict on children: rethinking our response

Recently, after a planned trip to Syria was cancelled on the border due to visa problems, I returned to Beirut. Later, I sat down with a colleague from Syria, who came to meet me there to review our work in providing psychosocial support to children in Syria. Despite the long hours it took her to cross the border from Syria to Lebanon, and the late hour, Lina was keen to talk about her work and experiences.

She vividly recalled that on a recent visit to a rebel-controlled area inside Syria, she met a boy, around12-years-old, named Mohammad. He walked around wielding a gun, nonchalant and seemingly quite proud of himself. When Lina probed further, he was vocal about his participation in the armed group. Did he miss school? He didn’t. Only when they were deeper into the conversation, did he admit longing to return to school.

Being out of school is just one of the violations against children that Lina and many of our colleagues regularly hear about. Children share stories about separation from families, witnessing acts of violence or being detained – all of which have long-term consequences.

The second story Lina shared was about a child in one of the camps she visited when people were fleeing from Aleppo to Tartous sometime in November 2014. She met a little girl, disabled from gunshots on her leg, looking distraught, sick and distracted. The girl’s mother told Lina that it would be a waste of time for her daughter to attend the child-friendly spaces set up by UNICEF and its partners.

Apparently the mother saw it as just a space for play and recreation. Lina urged the partners on the ground to follow up with the girl’s mother. When Lina returned to the centre several months later, she found the little girl looking visibly cheerful and enjoying the recreational activities and psychological first aid provided by the centre. The mother, too, fully appreciated how her daughter had benefited.

During my time in Beirut, I visited a psychosocial support programme supported by UNICEF in the city. I saw scores of children from Syria engaged in various activities – language coaching, drama, theatre, music and when needed, referrals to specialized mental health care. This reassured me that these interventions do make a difference and bring relief and hope to children.

It was also a reminder of the hundreds of thousands of children unable to access these services or be part of the process of stabilization. Speaking to colleagues based in Syria, there is a sobering realization that interventions like child-friendly spaces alone cannot are not enough over the longer term.

A young Syrian girl sits at the window of a painted building.
Halime (16) and her family are from Hama in Syria, but now live in Saricam camp in Adana, Turkey. © UNICEF/MENA2015-00021/Yurtsever

We need to find ways to engage communities in self-help and peer support, and to overcome the challenges of access to psychosocial support for the communities most affected. When faith-based leaders, adolescents and youth are reached and engaged appropriately, they can become partners in providing support. We can also engage local community actors on some of the existing approaches such as Psychological First Aid (PFA), locally adapted, or the equivalent. Community messaging on psychosocial support can also be scaled up.

Studies in similar contexts have demonstrated that children and community members show remarkable resilience in coping with adversities. Enabling community members to restore social connections and networks, facilitating peer-to-peer support, helping caregivers cope with stress, and promoting community self-help in general, are critical for building on that resilience.

View the conference brochure.
View the symposium brochure.

This is just one of many issues that will be discussed at a global symposium to be held in The Hague from 26 to 28 May 2015. UNICEF and partners with expertise in mental health and psychosocial support will come together and take stock of the devastation wrought by the numerous conflicts around the world on children’s emotional well-being.

What do we know about the impact of these conflicts on children in the long term? Can neuroscience tell us anything new? What are practitioners seeing on a day-to-day basis? Do we make a lasting difference? How can we measure meaningful differences in what we do? Are interventions like child-friendly spaces effective and are they sufficient?

Experts from both academia and practice will discuss many of these and similar questions. People from the field such as Lina will be there. Other experts such as Lynne Jones, a renowned expert in the field, will present findings from a long-term ethnographic study of children from two sides of the Bosnian War. So many others will share their rich experiences.

As I watched the smiling faces of the children from Syria attending UNICEF-supported activity centres in Beirut, I had the distinct feeling that, despite the terrible destruction of the conflict, everything we do in Syria and the neighbouring countries does make a difference. I also tell myself that there are other creative ways of working that will bring greater benefits to children in war-torn communities. Assembling a group of committed people both from the field and academia to think collectively is certainly a good place to start.

For more details on the upcoming symposium & information about livestreaming, please visit: OR   

Saji Thomas is a child protection specialist, working on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support and Community-based child protection at UNICEF Headquarters, New York. He is the co-chair of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee Reference Group on MHPSS. He has over 15 years of experience in the field of child protection and psychosocial support, both in emergencies and development context.

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  1. Thank for this post, Children should be giving attention at all times because you can’t tell what they will do next or wouldn’t do. If a parent neglects his child, the child becomes something else.