Peaceful Childhoods – Children and Armed Conflict


Children who have lived in the midst of armed conflicts or been displaced by war or fighting have often experienced traumatic events which can have devastating impacts on their health and well-being. Trauma can be thought of as the experience of a sudden negative overwhelming event, or as a process or sequence, and can involve a host of social relationships impacting the individual.[1] Children who have survived armed conflict may exhibit Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), major depression, (other) anxiety disorders, aggression, somatic symptoms, substance abuse (with adolescents), disturbed academic functioning, and interference in developmental tasks (e.g. bedwetting, clinging behavior).[2] Healing from trauma may take different forms or have different patterns depending on the relationship of an individual to their community in a particular cultural context.[3] In non-Western societies especially, trauma may be considered “a collective syndrome and means an impairment of relations and functions on the individual, the family, the community…and the society level”, involving the breakdown of relationships and coping strategies in a society rather than an individual experience.[4] It is important to be aware of the culturally nuanced experience of trauma and healing when helping children of different cultural backgrounds.



Grave violations against children common in armed conflicts include the killing and maiming of children, the recruitment and use of children as soldiers, sexual violence against children, attacks on schools or hospitals, the denial of humanitarian access to children, and the abduction of children. In 2014, these were committed against children in 23 countries.[5] Abducting children has become increasingly common, and often is accompanied by acts of physical and sexual violence against children or which they are made to witness.[6]

When aerial attacks and indiscriminate weaponry are used, the lives of children may be put in danger. Landmines and other explosive devices may appear to curious children as toys, and pose a particular risk to male children who may work outdoors. In 2010, these types of devices caused approximately 2100 child casualties. The costs of rehabilitation after being injured by an explosive device often places a significant financial burden on families and may force a child to discontinue their education due to the inability of a family to pay for both educational and medical fees. Girls are particularly at risk of sexual violence in war, and may experience the rejection of their communities if they are raped or impregnated by rebel groups. Additionally, in refugee camps for people displaced by conflicts, violence is largely sexual and gender based.[7]

Many areas of children’s lives are affected by conflict, resulting in disrupted healthy child development. Educational opportunities are interrupted as schools are often closed during war time. Conflict stops investment into the future as it creates feelings of insecurity, decreasing the capital and energy people pour into the future of their communities. Conflict can contribute to mental health problems, including distress, anxiety, and fear. Often family structures, important for healthy child development, are disrupted by conflict due to death, absence, or ill health of parents caused by conflict. Displacement of children and their families also may occur during conflict, bringing risk of physical dangers such as malnourishment and sexual abuse. Half of the refugees in the world are young children or adolescents.[8] Thousands of unaccompanied minors flee to other countries seeking asylum; unfortunately some of these children are detained for months in criminal justice systems rather than being treated as victims of war.[9]

Children across the world are at risk of participating in armed conflicts as combatants, due to a variety of social and political reasons. Poor regulatory policies and lack of enforcement means that children are at risk of being recruited by government or non-governmental forces to participate in conflicts; often military schools or indoctrination serve to prepare children to the perpetrators of violence. [10] Children may also become soldiers due to poverty, a desire for revenge or to protect their communities, or because they were abducted and coerced; it is important to understand that these children are victims of violence, regardless of how they ended up becoming child soldiers.[11] The process of healing mentally, physically, and emotionally is complicated and may take a very long time.[12] The primary countries where child soldiers are used are Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Myanmar, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, and Yemen.[13]

Children and youth involvement in conflicts can happen outside of formal armed conflicts between opposing militias. Often in post-conflict societies, such as in Central America, violence continues after civil wars have ended.[14] Experiences of violence as victims or combatants and cultures of violence encourage adolescence to use violence as a response in disputes and conflicts.[15] While civil wars do not necessarily lead to gang violence, often they create internal conditions which facilitate gang formation.[16] Situations of poverty, inequality, exclusion, unequal educational access, few recreational opportunities, huge numbers of youth, and oppressive political decisions compound to make an environment where gangs thrive.[17] Where political situations remain destabilized, and police forces weak or corrupt, children are at risk of being recruited into gangs with few choices other than to flee if they refuse.[18] Unfortunately, increased youth violence leads to a decreased overall senses of security and serves to stigmatized already socially marginalized young people.[19] Youth gangs can provide youth with material benefits and a sense of belonging. Government responses are often zero tolerance, using repression and police violence to try to curb youth violence, which earns politicians public favour but does not necessarily help curb violence levels.[20] In Latin America, the mano dura (iron fist) response to violence involves violating individual rights and empowering police and military, which has only served to increase the sophistication of gangs and the growth of prison gangs.[21] Long periods of waiting in prisons surrounded by hardened criminals do not help reform youth who have committed violence to be more peaceable. Alternatives such as prevention and social development in the forms of youth services, street workers, and employment opportunities are underfunded, leaving zero tolerance as the preferred option. Rather than repression, resocialization programs, community service, and sanctions are more appropriate for youth.[22]



Protective Factors

The following factors can help children overcome traumatic events: agency and having some measure of control over their lives; empathy and social intelligence; community connection and sense of shared experiences; hope for a future and ability to grow; a spiritual connection, which can help children understand tragedy; and a sense of morality. [23] Resilience to trauma and conflict can be thought of as attaining social outcomes and emotional adjustment, in spite of horrendous circumstances.[24] Structured education is effective in the restoration of psychosocial wellbeing as it can provide stability and the opportunity to reach many affected children. Peace education, which teaches cooperation, communication, empathy, and self-assurance, includes psychosocial support and can be integrated into formal and informal educational settings.[25] Family connectedness is very important in frightening circumstance, and children’s ability to cope with war stress relates to how their caregivers cope with it.[26] For people not attending schools, youth centers with psychosocial supports and recreational activities can be positive spaces for youth to meet. Additionally, exchanges either between regions or between generations can help youth know that they are not alone in their experiences, and to have a bigger grasp of others’ experiences.[27]

Justice is an important part of healing after conflict has occurred, as it recognizes the pain and injustice which has been perpetrated against innocent people and it helps to ensure that those who committed the violence are prevented from continuing to disrupt the lives of children. In the aftermath of war, there are often judicial courts or truth and reconciliation processes. Increasingly, violations against children are being punished; the process of including children in these trials can be facilitated by closed sessions, testifying behind a screen, and pre and post counselling to protect child witnesses. For children who participated as soldiers in conflict, or were associated with involved militias, it is important to recognize the coercive aspect of their participation and primarily view children as victims, rather than perpetrators. To help children understand the consequences and for victims to feel justice, consider community alternatives such as truth-telling, restorative justice, or traditional healing ceremonies rather than punitive punishment of children.[28] Nationally, improved legislation, dialogue and cooperation, and possibly truth and reconciliation commissions should be established.[29]

Restoration and Healing
Rehabilitating and reintegrating children who have been combatants or victims of armed conflict needs to include physical rehabilitation, education, and psychosocial support. The resumption of educational activities during conflict and post-conflict can help children with recovery.[30] Even non-formal learning can play an important role; this may take the form of sports and youth activities, mentoring, drop-in centers and life-skills training.[31] Based on socio-ecological models, the rebuilding of a nation’s legal system, health care system, faith institutions, and the provision of basic resources including shelter, water, and nutrition are important in the rebuilding of children’s lives.[32], [33] Family support centres even in the midst of conflict areas increase feelings of protection, relieve stress, and allow for self-expression among children who are in conflict areas.[34] Various international agencies provide a variety of individual psychotherapy services, many of which focus on narrating and discussing the conflict. Other forms of healing are more psychosocial based, which include traditional methods which are more likely to focus on mending social relationships, or art therapy or psychodrama. Psychosocial supports take into account social context and networks, culture, as well as individual perspective and coping strategies. Play and games are important to regain a sense of normalcy, and media such as radio, dance, drama, sports, or drawing can help convey coping methods.

Having a supportive adult listen and give comfort can make a big difference in the lives of children who have undergone traumatic events. It is vital that a child is never made fun of for being afraid. It is important to help children distinguish between reality and unreality, such as nightmares. It is good to help children anticipate frightening things, and to work through fears by talking, drawing, telling stories, or acting out situations. Other ways of dealing with emotional stress include focusing on something else, talking through a situation, and taking deep breaths.[35]

Note that healing and trauma take place within specific communities, and it is vital that local societies be integrated when planning psychosocial support and recovery projects. It is important to consider the culture of the children being aided and the Western perspective many NGOs take, as well as the need to develop the capacity of local professionals. International agencies must be cautious in their approach in providing psychosocial support so as not to ignore cultural context, nor to fall passive to local traditions which demand that nothing be done. Although ideally governments are partners for structural support, it is possible that some governments may still be embroiled in aggression, and thus, would not be trusted by youth to help them recover from the trauma of war. There is no exact time frame for support, but starting with provision of basic needs, psychosocial support should be integrated as early as possible. Long term approaches which support self-help are ultimately needed in order to ensure the sustainable recovery of a generation. For long term and large scale recovery, physicians and educators should be taught how to provide psychosocial support to their patients and students.[36]

It is crucial to be aware that the formal end of a conflict does not signify the end of armed violence within a region, such as the deaths that followed the US invasion of Iraq and the continued battle against the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.[37] Violence following war is particularly destabilizing as it undermines effective peace-building and instills fear concerning the future. Although there is no single pattern of nations emerging from war, it is vital to consider the impact social-cultural factors, the strength of states and institutions, the political economies that emerge from conflict, and international factors have on levels of violence within a post-conflict nation.[38]


The following sources are available to help guardians and educators assist in the recovery of children who have survived the trauma associated with armed conflicts.


  1. Bücklein, Katrin. 2007. “Psychosocial support for children and youth: Approaches of International cooperation in post-conflict countries.” Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ) and commissioned by Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development. Pp 4-5. Retrieved from
  2. Tol, W., Jordans, M., Komproe, I. Lasuba, A. Ntamutumba, P., Susanty, D., Vallipuram, A. & de Jong, J. (2008). Module 1: Impact of armed conflict on children. In: Children in areas affected by political violence: a resource package for a comprehensive psychosocial care approach. Amsterdam: HealthNet TOP/PLAN Netherlands. Retrieved from
  3. Bücklein, K. (2007) p 5.
  4. Bücklein, K. (2007) p 6
  5. Hamilton, C., Dutordoir, L. (2013). The Six Grave Violations Against Children During Armed Conflict: The Legal Foundation – Working Paper No. 1. Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict. Retrieved from
  6. United Nations General Assembly Security Council. (2015). Children and armed conflict: Report of the Secretary-General. Retrieved from
  7. Pinheiro, P. (2006). World Report on Violence Against Children. Geneva, Switzerland: United Nations Secretary-General’s Study on Violence against Children. Chpt 6. Retrieved from
  8. Bücklein, K. (2007).
  9. Pinheiro, P. (2006). Chapter 5.
  10. Withers, L., Falchetta, T., Taylor, R. (2012). Louder than Words: An Agenda for Action to End State Use of Child Soldiers. Child Soldiers International. Retrieved from
  11. Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict. Child Recruitment. Retrieved from
  12. Withers, Falchetta, Taylor. (2012).
  13. Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict. Children, Not Soldiers. Retrieved from
  14. Arana, A. (2005). How the Street Gangs took Central America. Foreign Affairs. Retrieved from
  15. Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH. (2011). Systematic Prevention of Youth Violence: A handbook to design and plan comprehensive violence prevention measures. Eschborn: GIZ. p6. Retrieved from
  16. Pérez, O. (2013). Gang Violence and Insecurity in Contemporary Central America. Bulletin of Latin American Research 32(s1):217-234. doi: 10.1111/blar.12114
  17. Pérez, O. (2013). p 224
  18. Carlson, E. and Gallagher, A.M. (2015). Humanitarian Protection for Children Fleeing Gang-Based Violence in the Americas. Journal on Migration and Human Security 3(2): 129-158.
  19. GIZ. (2011).
  20. Arana, A. (2005).
  21. Pérez, O. (2013) p.219
  22. Worner, B. (2008). Focus on Youth: Youth Violence- A Challenge for Development. Deutsche Gesellschaft fürTechnische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ) GmbH.
  23. Cortes, L., & Buchanan, M. J. (2007). The experience of Colombian child soldiers from a resilience perspective. International Journal for the Advancement of Counselling, 29 (1):43–55. DOI:10.1007/s10447-006-9027-0
  24. Betancourt, T. S. & Khan, K. T. (2008). The mental health of children affected by armed conflict: protective processes and pathways to resilience. International Review of Psychiatry 20(3):317-328. DOI:10.1080/09540260802090363
  25. Bücklein, K. (2007). p 9-10
  26. Betancourt & Khan. (2008).
  27. Bücklein, K. (2007). p 11
  28. Drumbl, M. (19 Mar 2015). The truth about child soldiers. CNN. Retrieved from
  29. Bücklein, K. (2007). p 12
  30. Betancourt & Khan. (2008).
  31. Pinheiro, P. (2006).Chpt 6.
  32. Betancourt & Khan. (2008). p323
  33. Bücklein, K. (2007). p 12
  34. German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ). (2013). Family Centres for Psychosocial Support: Creating Safe Spaces for Women, Children and Youth in Gaza. Retrieved from
  35. Land, M. J., MacQueen, G., Santa Barbara, J,. Land, K. A. (2009). Journey of Peace. Retrieved from
  36. Bücklein, K. (2007).
  37. Berdal, M. (2012). 16. Reflections on post-war violence and peacebuilding. In A. Suhrke & M. R. Burdal (Eds),The peace in between: post-war violence and peacebuilding (309-326). London; New York : Routledge.
  38. Berdal, M. (2012).