Foreign Policy Blogs

How Conflict, Disaster and Trauma Affect Children and the Need for Education

Child in Lebanon plays amidst the rubble and daily reminder of violent conflict. Photo: UNHRC

Children are indisputably the most victimized by that of armed conflict as well as natural disasters, and the long-term impact which is has on their development is profound. It is that heavy impact that can often become a parent’s worst nightmare as they work to help their children recover from trauma. A child woken each night by the thundering roar of bombs or the shatter shakes that jolt them from their beds during an earthquake, can both be left with many of the same levels of trauma and we need to ensure that considerable efforts are placed in all areas of disaster relief and post-conflict reconstruction to ensure that the needs of children’s initial and long-term mental and social care are given significant priority.

A child who wakes each morning only to walk through the rubble filled and blood soaked streets, may have a tendency to develop negative feelings and fear towards at those whom he or she sees as the aggressor of such intense levels of violence. Surely a child who has witnessed the death of a parent, or even their entire family has a likelihood to be have feelings or thoughts of hate or despair. So how do you quail such thoughts of sorrow and hate and turn them in to positive actions for peace and tolerance?

Providing education in conflict and post-conflict, as well as in pos-disaster situations, also works to build peace and security by giving children hope. Ways that this is done includes; teaching diversity and multiculturalism, providing essential life and cognitive skills, as well as giving children a sense of normality and an opportunity to interact with children who are from the supposed ‘other side’ of the conflict. Schools also can life changing and saving lessons on peace building and conflict resolution, which can lead to a decrease in future violence. Basic education is necessary for all post-conflict communities to ensure for sustainable post-conflict, as well as in post-disaster reconstruction.

One example of the power education has to promote peace is the UNICEF funded program in Boca de Cupe, Panama, Retorno de la Alegria (Return to Happiness);

“Some displaced children from Colombia come to this region and initially talk of going back to Colombia to fight,” says Ms. Alfaro. “Return to Happiness presents them with new options for their future, some are now saying, “I want to be a teacher or a lawyer or a missionary’. They start to think more about peace and less about violence because they realize that war and bloodshed are no longer their only option.” (UNICEF)

Ensuring school attendance in conflict and post-conflict situations, helps to teach peace both directly and indirectly. School attendance reduces the risk of children being recruited or re-recruited as child soldiers, provide life-saving information on landmines, HIV/AIDS prevention, and heathcare education which can aid in the prevention of disease. Education in conflict, post-conflict and post-disaster situations also provides children with both structure and stability, which can help them overcome the trauma incurred by conflict, and displacement.

While education is one of the key’s to sustainable healing and re-intergration for children, it is not just teachers, but parents and gaurdian’s who have a key role to play to ensure that children both recover from the first hand effects of trauma from conflict and distaster, but also those children who are witnessing the the trauma second hand via the media.  Talking to our children about disaster, violence and war is difficult in its own right, as no parent wants to bring their child into the harsh reality that is our globalized world. And while yes, sheltering children from violence is ideal, it is not an option that holds feasibility for long. Soon children will catch a glimpse of the destruction the fills our evening news, see the images of death on the cover of the morning newspaper; hear something at school about a child in his class that was abused, etc. The reality of life is that most children two thirds of the worlds children live in violent conflict, making violence are part of everyday life. Helping children who live in environments of peace understand disaster, violence and conflict, and that children across the globe do not all live as they do, does not only help to be more prepared should they ever be faced with such situations, it also works to help prevent instances of violence and conflict. Children undoubtedly have a clearer understanding of human nature than adults tend to realize, and they tend to see past the political polarization that so often muddles’ the peace process.

So how do you talk to children about violence and conflict, with out leaving them daunted and distressed, but leave them empowered for peace? Start with letting them know that everyone does both good and bad things sometimes, but violence based on someones race, religion or gender is never ok. Work with them to see that real war and violence isn’t a black and white issue, there is no good guys versus the bad guys, and regardless of how gray the areas between the two sides are, atrocities such as ethnic cleansing and genocide, are never ok. Helping children to brake down the barriers between fantasy war and real war, by highlighting the realness of the victims, who are disproportionately children, lets them know that life and conflict dose not always end with a storybook ending that people die and lives are uprooted, and once peace comes there is still much to be done to help people rebuild their lives and maintain peace.

Help your children understand the world better and take time out once a week to learn a about a new culture, show them what a child’s life is life for someone their age in Brazil, China, India, Kosovo, Spain, Zambia, etc.  Why not have your child pick a country which they feel the most connected to or they have heard about in school and work with them to find a way to give back; collecting clothing, donating their allowance, donate books to a school, etc. You and your child will not only have fun learning together, but you will be helping your child develop into a more cultured and tolerant person, and possibly even a future leader for peace! Peace begins with social responsibility and teaching our children that it is the only way forward is the only way to ever move towards sustainable peace.

See Books for Children, Resources for Children and Young Adults, Resources Teachers and Parents, and the other resource pages as well as the links for more resources and tools to help you talk to your children.

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Cassandra Clifford
Cassandra Clifford

Cassandra Clifford is the Founder and Executive Director of Bridge to Freedom Foundation, which works to enhance and improve the services and opportunities available to survivors of modern slavery. She holds an M.A., International Relations from Dublin City University in Ireland, as well as a B.A., Marketing and A.S., Fashion Merchandise/Marketing from Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island.

Cassandra has previously worked in both the corporate and charity sector for various industries and causes, including; Child Trafficking, Learning Disabilities, Publishing, Marketing, Public Relations and Fashion. Currently Cassandra is conducting independent research on the use of rape as a weapon of war, as well as America’s Pimp Culture and its Impact on Modern Slavery. In addition to her many purists Cassandra is also working to develop a series of children’s books.

Cassandra currently resides in the Washington, D.C. metro area, where she also writes for the Examiner, as the DC Human Rights Examiner, and serves as an active leadership member of DC Stop Modern Slavery.

Areas of Focus:
Children's Rights; Human Rights; Conflict