Effects of war on children

[Note from Kathie Malley-Morrison:  Today we welcome guest contributor Mimi Maritz, a senior at Boston University studying psychology and economics. In her free time she volunteers for the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center and practices meditation and yoga. Next year she will be working as a special education teacher in Boston as part of the Teach for America corps.]

By Mimi Maritz

Among the many devastating aspects of war is its effects on children. Far from innocent bystanders, children are often casualties of war–through death, disease, malnutrition or injury. For example, from 1985-1995, an estimated 2 million children were killed due to war*.

Botswana Defense soldier and Somali toddler during an arms raid in Mogadishu

Botswana Defense soldier and Somali toddler during an arms raid in Mogadishu (Image in public domain)

Many children in war zones become refugees due to separation from or death of their family. Orphaned children often have limited access to food and clean water and therefore become susceptible to deadly illnesses and face life-long health problems. It is estimated that such diseases account for 60-80% of the deaths of displaced children of war*.

Those that survive are not considered lucky. In many instances, vulnerable boys are brainwashed into becoming child soldiers, working with the oppressors and regularly engaging in combat. Girls can be exploited into sex trade, forced to offer sexual services, married off to rebel leaders, or even sexually mutilated.

Beyond death, injury, exploitation and displacement, children in war zones are often emotionally damaged and suffer post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They typically lose years of education, and the level of violence that they see can alter their normal development and lead to a skewed sense of reality.

If we hope to live in a peaceful and just world, we must start with the children because they are the seeds of the change we hope to see.

To learn more about the effects of war on children, visit the following websites:





*Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Children. (1996, August 26). UNICEF. From www.unicef.org/graca/a51-306_en.pdf
Children’s Drawings of the Spanish Civil War: A Virtual Exhibition Catalog. (n.d.). Columbia University in the City of New York.
Danziger, N. (n.d.). Children and war. The power of humanity.
Barbara, J. S. (2006, December 1). Impact of War on Children and Imperative to End War. National Center for Biotechnology Information.
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19 Responses to Effects of war on children

  1. David Caras says:

    Every war since the beginning of time affects children politically, socioeconomically, health status, and most importantly, mentally. It is often wondered if there can ever be an end to war, but as long as children learn behaviors that ascribe to aggression from witnessing battles real or fake, this vision of panacea is impossible. Besides the fact that children witness war, some societies actively teach children certain ideologies that praise war and the martyr. Besides the al Qaeda, there are African nations that arm rebel boys under the age of ten years.
    American soldiers have a weakness for children. Even though the American trooper is part of the war process that children are exposed to, the American soldier has a genuine care and attraction to children. Regardless of why these Americans are in an area fighting, whether it is to track down terrorists, fight for oil, or any reason the media and people want to assign, the foot soldier on the ground has a real goal of caring for the people, especially children, in the areas they control. The U.S. Green Berets have always made this a priority. De oppresso liber, “To Liberate the Oppressed”.

  2. kathiemm says:

    Thank you so much for your comment, David.
    I do think it is important to remember that the foot soldiers are indeed able to recognize the children they encounter in war zones as….children. I am sure you are correct that many of these soldiers interact with those children with warmth and kindness. Moreover, I am sure that many of those soldiers would prefer to be home with their own children and families than fighting and killing on foreign soil. I think we should recognize and appreciate goodness and kindness wherever we see it, while also striving to recognize the forces that send our boys and girls to war, and to understand what those forces gain from arming those boys and girls and training them to kill.

  3. Mimi Maritz says:

    Thank you for adding this insight, David. Soldiers taking it upon themselves to care for children is definitely one important step in the process of healing for children. Unfortunately it seems that the inevitable trauma that children endure in war zones goes beyond what an empathic soldier can help out with.

  4. David Caras says:

    Mimi, you are so right. Hopefully the children in war zones can learn from our soldier’s caring that moral humanity is not all lost. A lot of time, money, and energy is spent in the interest of children. Americans collect toys, candy, school supplies, clothes, etc. to send to American servicemen and women so they can be hand delivered to children.

    • kathiemm says:

      David, I think your reminder about all the people who want to help rather than hurt is a good one. It is part of what gives me optimism. I think most people would rather help than hurt unless somehow they have become convinced that the only way to protect themselves is to distrust everyone and be prepared to hurt when they think it will serve their own interests.

  5. Erin says:

    Thank you for this post Mimi. I think its great that you called attention to the multitude of hardships children face during war. Many people forget about the children who have no choice but to be involved with wars, and many certainly don’t recognize the array of hardships they face.

    Do you think that children suffer so much in times of war because they are even more dehumanized during these times? We’ve discussed on this blog how the victims of violence become dehumanized by victimizers in order to personally justify their atrocities. I was thinking children may be even more dehumanized for their lives may be seen as completely worthless by those committing violence. Soldiers may not consider children of any worth because they cannot aid in their warring efforts, they cannot fend for themselves, therefore a child’s survival may be completely devalued or ignored. Even more disheartening is that fact that if a child is acknowledged during war it is not out of empathy or compassion. As you said, children are chosen by the warring parties to become objects used either for sexual exploitation or to manipulate them to engage in violence; thus devaluing them even more.

  6. Regina Amorello says:

    I agree that it is extremely important to credit foot soldiers for the empathy and support that they display. It is admirable what some soldiers have done for children in war zones. However, in war, I think it is inevitable that children will be affected. Their lives may be spared, but they will have to deal with losses and trauma for years to come. It is inescapable no matter how sympathetic soldiers are with children. The images they have seen cannot be unseen. Most importantly, I think this is a huge problem based on the fact that these children will grow up angry and fearful. As a result, they will seek to join forces with their country to fight those who offended their country and disrupted their once innocent lives.

  7. Chris Mercurio says:

    I thought it was great that you brought up PTSD because it is a side effect of war that is often ignored, but can cause debilitating symptoms. Only in recent history have we begun to have a clear understanding of PTSD and how to treat it. Unfortunately, the media tends to focus exclusively on the soldiers. As the troops finally begin to come home from the Middle East, and our country is inundated with cases of PTSD, I think it is important that we popularize the notion that PTSD can affect anyone, especially vulnerable children in war zones.

  8. Will Fitzpatrick says:

    Perhaps no image highlights the barbaric absurdity of war better than that of a young child gazing down the scope of an automatic rifle. In a number of countries across the world, children are subject to war-torn realities where unfortunately this sort of image is just a glimpse of what occurs on a normal, daily basis. The effects on the children exposed to warfare are immeasurable, as they are destined for lives plagued by violence, intense emotional trauma, and even sexual exploitation, to mention a mere fraction of the potential negative outcomes.
    Another website to which deals with these issues worth visiting is freethechildren.com, where their philosophy is stated as “the best way to protect children from wars is to prevent them from happening in the first place.” As Mimi said, things like the effects of an empathic soldier on a child’s well-being are only so finite. This considered, a more broadened effort to cease war altogether would provide the necessary change to save children now and future generations from its atrocious consequences.

  9. David Caras says:

    I have noticed something on the American news channels that I completely did not expect. I am actually perplexed. The file footage of the Americans across the country moments after the President announced the death of Osama bin Laden almost exclusively showed young Americans probably in their early 20’s waving flags and celebrating. If this is true, this would make these same Americans to be between the ages of 9-11 around September 11, 2001 when al Qaeda attacked our country. I would not discredit their emotions by saying they were not affected by the events of that horrible day, but to amass in the streets with as much emotion that they displayed surprised me. I was in the military and deployed at that time, so I assumed it affected me more than these young adults, especially because their cognitive reasoning was not very strong at such young ages in 2001. These young Americans are obviously OUR children of war. Even if they did not understand what was happening that day, they must have seen the shock in the faces of their parents, older siblings, teachers, shop owners….. Everywhere they went. That was enough to leave a mark. Or a scar. Or an intrinsic motivation to care, and the feeling of belonging to a special group. A group of proud, American citizens. I wonder what their group goal is now?

  10. kathiemm says:

    You make a very good point re: PTSD, Chris. Many members of society assume that PTSD happens only to service people and certainly do not connect it with children, but clearly the children of war can suffer from PTSD symptoms the rest of their lives.

  11. Kimberley Brunner says:

    Unfortunately, violence of any kind has severely negative consequences on the children that experience violence themselves or observe it. Former Boston University Student Mimi Martiz, clearly outlines the consequences of war on children, in her blog post. According to the post, children are often the causalities of war through death, disease and malnutrition. Those who do survive are equally unlucky, often becoming child-soldiers. In addition as the author of the blog post states, child soldiers are forced to work through the years of emotional damage resulting from observing horrendous acts of violence. It is from these consequences that we can draw many parallels between children who are victims of war and children who are victims of family violence.

    According to the post, in the most recent couple of decades children have been used as soldiers and can be seen carrying rifles in war-torn countries. In particular in Africa, children as young as ten years old can be seen carrying an assault rifle. Children are most often used as soldiers because they will easily follow directions and are easier to intimidate. Concerning the effects of war on children the sad reality is that for many, war is seen as a permanent way of life. As the author of the post states, victims of war develop into adulthood with a skewed sense of reality. Growing up surrounded by war, many children grow accustomed to violence and life in war-torn country and go on to become soldiers, continuing the history of violence that they have grown accustomed to. Some of these child soldiers are as young as ten. Children who are orphaned according to the UNICEF website will often become soldiers because they see no other option for themselves. Children may choose to join the fighting to seek revenge, as a way of survival or to defend their religious beliefs. In addition, victims of war are subjected to intense emotional damage and often develop post-traumatic distress syndrome (PTSD). This effect of war on children is very similar to the effect of family abuse on children.

    Studies have shown that children who grow up in an abusive home, either witnessing or experiencing abuse themselves often become abusive later in life. Similar to children soldiers who see war as a permanent way of life, children who are abused according to the social learning theory, “learn ‘appropriate’ situations and targets for aggression the same way they learn everything else that is, through the patterns of reinforcements and punishments that they experience…” (Hines and Malley-Morrison, 24). In addition, similar to children who grow up in war-torn countries, victims of family violence also develop with a skewed sense of reality. These children may believe that acts of violence in the home appropriate, not understanding that there are more appropriate ways to act at home or in relationships. For example, adults who were subjected to corporal punishment as a child are more likely to subject their children to acts of corporal punishment. In addition, children who witnessed their father’s abuse their mothers are more likely to abuse their spouses as an adult. As a young child, victims of child abuse are also more likely to involve war or fighting into their play. This aggressive play is an unfortunate consequence of child abuse indicating that the victim’s realities are so skewed; their play involves violence that is representative of their environment. These children often view violence and aggressive behavior as normal and socially appropriate.

    Similar to children who develop surrounded by war and violence, victims of child abuse suffer emotional distress as well. Many of these children develop insecure attachment to their parents which often translates to other social relationships as well. Individuals who are abused as a child are more likely to interact less with their peers and may show anger at signs of distress from a peer, perhaps even striking them. Additionally, similar to victims of war, children who are subjected to abuse at home are more likely to display signs of depression, conduct disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. These children also exhibit signs of lower self-esteem.

    The more severe, and frequent the acts of violence in a family context, the more severe the negative consequences will be for the victim. This rule of thumb can easily be applied to victims of war as well. The longer a child is exposed to war, the more severe the negative consequences will be for that child as well.

    • kathiemm says:

      Thanks, Kimberley. You have done a great job of drawing connections between what we know about the effects of armed conflict on children and what we know about the effects of family violence on children.

  12. Kimberley Brunner says:

    Studies have clearly demonstrated that violence has a negative effect on children who are victims of family violence and victims of war. However, there exist programs that aim to reverse these negative effects of violence for children who are victims of war and victims of family violence. All over the world, there exist several organizations whose sole purpose is to help treat children who are victims of violence. It is the hope that such programs will aid in the development of children who are victims of family violence and victims of war.

    At the end of her blog post, former Boston University student Mimi Martiz, includes several links to websites that aid in the understanding of the effects of war on children. Among the list of links, was a link for an organization called, War Child International. The main goals of War Child International are to fulfill the protection, development and survival rights of children who have been affected by war and are recovering from the effects of war. The organization aims to instill hope in the child victim of war because they are the future. War Child International has implemented programs in Iraq, Afghanistan, Uganda and many other war-torn countries. It is the hope that these programs will protect children from the consequences of violence, stimulate their social and psychological development (hopefully decreasing the likelihood that they will become violent as adults), and ensure that these children have access to education.

    Similarly in cases of child abuse, it has been revealed that support networks help
    with child adjustment. Support networks are now seen as a helpful outlet for reducing the negative consequences of child abuse. It has been noted that children and adolescents who are part of a peer network are less likely to become depressed, and suffer from anxiety than adolescents who have no support network (Hines and Malley-Morrison,Family Violence in the United States, p. 95). In addition, not only are there programs that target the victims of abuse, but there are also programs intended to educate the general public about abuse and prevent abuse before it even begins. If there has already been a history of abuse, these programs also hope to reduce the chances of repeated abuse. The aim of these programs is to improve parenting skill and knowledge, increase social support, and change child rearing norms.

    There are three types of prevention programs. Primary prevention programs are aimed at the general public. Media campaigns are the most common form of this type of program. The goal of primary prevention programs is to educate the general population about the nature of the abuses and ways to prevent it (Hines and Malley-Morrison, p. 103).

    Secondary prevention programs target populations that are at high risk for abuse. It is the hope that such programs will stop abuse before it begins by educating at-risk parents about proper child-rearing skills and ways to prevent abuse. This type of program is most often seen in the form of home visitation. The service provider observes the home environment and makes changes where he or she feels necessary. They also educate future parents, and current parents on proper child-rearing techniques (Hines and Malley-Morrison, 103-104).

    Tertiary prevention programs are targeted towards families that have already come to the attention of child protective services because of previous abuse at home. For example, one such program, Abused-Focus Family Treatment, focuses on helping families with a history of abuse. In the first phase of this program family roles are assessed and reframed to enhance cooperation. In the second phase which is often known as skill building, families are trained in problem-solving techniques and communication skills. In the third phase also known as application/termination, families are encouraged to use the new problem-solving routines that they have been taught (Hines & Malley-Morrison, p. 106). With the help of this type of program, families are taught how to prevent future abuse. Hopefully with these support- systems we will see less negative outcomes from abuse and violence.

    • kathiemm says:

      Thanks, Kimberley, for a nice comment regarding the effects of violence on children, and possibilities for alleviating the negative effects on children of exposure to violence from within and beyond the family.

  13. Jac says:

    In Family Violence in the United States, several different learning theories are presented that attempt to explain the different effects that abuse can have on a child. One of those is the classic social learning theory, which, simply put, suggests that individuals repeat what they learn (p. 24). Children will not only learn the abusive acts that they’ve seen but the moral justifications as well, creating an ongoing cycle of maltreatment and abuse (Family Violence in the United States, p. 18). For example, if a child sees a father hitting the mother and telling her that she deserves it for, say, not cleaning the house and cooking him dinner by the time he gets home, the child will not only take in the abusive act but also the abusive act’s reasoning. One study by Gelles & Cornell (1990) stated this clearly in its findings: “Individuals learn to be violent from growing up in violent homes, where they observe violent models, see violence being reinforced, and learn justifications for violence” (p.18). Another study done by Simons et al. (1991) found similarity in intergenerational parenting practices: “Parents who behaved aggressively with their children had parents who had used similar aggression with them when they were growing up” (p. 18). As this blog post has shown us, children who have been raised through the horrors of war are often left without proper guardians and can be manipulated back into the horrors of war through becoming child soldiers or being forced into sexual slavery. They have possibly grown up without an adult figure whom they could trust or feel attached too, which can also be the case in children who suffered from domestic violence.
    The theory that involves childrearing and the harmful effects that early punishment can have on children is in fact called the theory of attachment. Attachment theories discuss the capability of loving oneself and others based on childhood experiences. Its main point is that “early experiences with caregivers contribute to the development of internal prototypes of human beings and human relationships” (Family Violence in the United States, p. 23). In short, people with secure attachment have positive relationships with themselves and others, while people with insecure attachment have negative relationships with themselves and others. Creating a violent cycle, “child abuse leads to an insecure attachment style and […] an insecure attachment style leads to family violence” (p. 23). However, according to the text, Kaufman and Zigler (1987) found that becoming aggressive is not a definite outcome for a person who was abused as a child (Family Violence in the United States, p. 24). This is the hopeful portion of this post; not every abused child will become an abuser in order to teach his or her children. Not every prison interrogator will induce fear over trust in order to get a desired outcome as can be seen in Matthew Alexander’s How to Break a Terrorist: The U.S. Interrogators Who Used Brains, Not Brutality, to Take Down the Deadliest Man in Iraq. Hopefully, not every child who has suffered through wars will grow up to be vengeful and full of hatred for their invaders.

  14. Lia says:

    The harm inflicted upon children during war is devastating. They are indeed “the seeds of change we hope to see,” but seeing as they are exposed to such trauma and violence, it would be surprising if they were to end up even remotely more stable than the environment they grew up in. A couple weeks ago, I led a group discussion with about five other classmates about this article and, more generally, the issue of child sexual abuse both in our country and others. What ended up being our most discussed topic was the issue of differing motives in child sexual abusers, depending on whether the abuse takes place during war or in a more mundane context. According to Hines & Malley-Morrison (2005), child sexual abusers often show symptoms of increased psychopathology, “experience themselves emotionally as children,” and come from families “characterized by sexual abuse through the generations. In the case of war, however, most of these characteristics seem irrelevant. For example, how can someone who on an emotional level identifies with children so publicly exploit, abuse, and rape them, as sadly occurs in war? We came to the conclusion that those who sexually abuse children during war are motivated more by power than personal psychopathology. As stated in the social exchange/control theory, “force, the threat of force, violence, and the threat of violence are commonly used by the more powerful…to gain compliance from [the] less powerful” (Malley-Morrison & Hines 2004). Because children are the most vulnerable targets, war perpetrators may use sexual abuse against them as a method of manipulation, humiliation and threat. Either way, I think most people can agree that child sexual abuse victims face the same lifelong consequences, no matter what context the abuse occurs in. These children end up, as Mimi Martiz puts it, “with a skewed sense of reality.” They are affected by the violence they witness to the point that it actually alters their development and hinders their mental, emotional, and psychological growth. In comparison with other non-abused children, they will “suffer more from anxiety disorders, including PTSD” and will most likely be “more violent, angry, self-mutilating, and irritable” (Hines and Malley-Morrison 2005). Ultimately, I think we have to better assess what being a “survivor” of a war or genocide means. I feel like once these children physically avoid death, they are considered “lucky” and get pushed out of the radar, even though they are barely better off. It is important that these kids are prioritized, so that the effects of war will not poison their lives and those of future generations.

  15. Sam S says:

    The word “war” brings to mind a plethora of images, both negative a positive – from a soldier fighting to keep his country free to an orphaned child in a war-torn country. It is the latter image which ignites a response from Mimi Maritz, who discusses many of the negative effects war can have on children. The assertion that war is positively correlated with these results, ranging from death due to malnutrition and disease, to child prostitution and slavery is due to these conditions having been frequently witnessed in a wide variety of conflicts.
    In a study of African Americans and Hispanics, all participant groups viewed the coercive aspect of sexual abuse as a “significant problem” (Family Violence in a Cultural Perspective pg. 101). Sexual crimes in a war zone, especially in crimes against children, highlight the coercive nature of these crimes. Children are exploited and sold into the sex trade, forced to marry rebel leaders and even sexually mutilated. All forms of sexual abuse are intolerable, however the scale of abuse seen during war is abhorrent.
    In Family Violence in the United States, Hines and Malley-Morrison discuss the long and short term effects violence and specifically sexual violence have on children. It is clear that both the mental and physical aspects of abuse negatively affect children throughout their development and may have negative consequences that last throughout their lives (pg. 119-120). Although this is clear, it is important to make a distinction when dealing with children who are from war-torn regions such as current day Syria and Libya. If a child was sexually abused during the conflicts in these countries, are the traumas they suffered separate from the conflict themselves? Should we have an entirely new way of treating and trying to prevent these types of acts from occurring?
    Mimi Maritz suggested in her blog that the “seeds of change” are the children themselves, and that if we expect to see change we must start with them. In order to provide children with an environment in which to be the change Ms. Maritz was alluding to, we must first provide them a safe environment in which they can flourish. Professionals have worked to intervene and prevent family violence from occurring within the United States – but it is also our duty to assist when we are able internationally. Especially in horrendous situations such as those mentioned by Ms. Maritz.

  16. Justine Vecchiarelli says:

    Far too often children are made the unwilling victims of violence, simply by being in its presence. This exposure had long lasting and devastating effects for individuals, and powerful knock on effects for generations to come.
    Much like children exposed to war, children exposed to violence within their families are unfortunate bystanders made to suffer. Females exposed to instances of wife abuse, witnessing the abuse of their mother at the hands of their father are at risk for intergenerational transmission of physical abuse victimization in their own relationships later in life (Hines and Malley-Morrison, chp. 7, pg. 164). Males exposed to the same sort of violence as children are, in turn, at risk for intergenerational transmission of abusive behavior, and are thus more likely to abuse their own spouses (Hines and Malley-Morrison, Chp. 7, pg. 166). This phenomenon is commonly explained via social learning theory (Hines and Malley-Morrison, chp. 7, pg. 166). Children learn that these aggressive and maladaptive relationships are the way they should behave, because their parents model and reinforce these aggressive behaviors. As these children grow up and have children of their own, and some of them turn to aggression in the relationships, there is a new generation with this propensity for abusive relationships, and so on and so forth.
    Thus, children exposed to war suffer these same effects, but intensified. Children of war are the casualties of serendipitous neglect, manifested in the separation between parent and child and depletion of resources such as food and water that result in warring areas, and subject to the obvious added dangers of living in a war zone. Similar to children exposed to family violence, children exposed to war are likely to be involved in further acts of violence. These effects are evident even earlier, in that boys are often so traumatized and vulnerable, especially given their astonishingly young ages, they are manipulated and brain-washed into joining the war as child soldiers. Females are no better off, being similarly coerced into sex trade. Children growing up in such dire circumstances, and living through such extreme circumstances are then scarred for life. Even more frightening, the child soldiers have essentially been programmed for violence. This skewed perception of reality undoubtedly follows them through adulthood, with many of these child soldiers likely instigating wars of their own, and ‘recruiting’ more young children in the process.
    The cyclical nature and long lasting repercussions that exposure to violence has on children is evident, and striking. As Mimi states, the hope of living in a peaceful world starts with the children, and this statement could not be truer. By mitigating the effects of violence on children, we hope to start a new cycle of peaceful and harmonious relations.

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