Children’s Psychological Responses to Trauma

29 Mar 2018

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Children’s psychological responses to trauma are comparable to that of adults with one exception: the children’s responses are mediated through a developing organism continuing to mature physically, cognitively, emotionally, and socially, and who is usually living within a family system. The child is still struggling with issues of separation and individuation, evolving definitions of the self and others, and the consolidation of adaptive mechanisms for coping with both internal and external stressors. The derivative effects of exposure to war-related stressors on the developing child are far-ranging and affect the elaboration and consolidation of personality structures, identity formation, adaptive and coping mechanisms, internalized standards of right and wrong, intrinsic mechanisms for modulating aggressive impulses, the habitual mode of relating to others in addition to having enduring neurobiology consequences.

It has been estimated that 300,000 children under 18 years of age have fought in various warring conflicts around the world (Lustig et al., 2002). These child warriors have been both the victims of war and the perpetrators of violence. Many of these children have been forced to commit acts of violence to prove their fidelity to particular groups. The exposure to brutal, aggressive violence against others at such an early age when the child is still struggling to consolidate regulatory mechanisms for controlling and modulating aggression may leave the child damaged in terms of their moral sense regarding the use of violence (De Silva, 2001; Shaw & Harris, 1994). Child warriors are often the most feared of all soldiers as they have been acculturated to violence and have few scruples about killing (Shaw & Harris, 1994).

Betancourt et al. (this issue) describe specifically ‘‘toxic’’ experiences that had lasting and distinctive effects on the child soldiers in this study, including the tragically common experiences of rape and killing others. Young people who perpetrated killing during their time as child soldiers had increasing hostility during the study, whereas those who had experienced rape had more anxiety and hostility, yet also showed more confidence and prosocial attitudes during the course of the longitudinal study. Moreover, they note that female child soldiers who experienced sexual violence face greater stigma than males when they return to the community because of perceptions that these young women are sexually ‘‘impure’’ or ‘‘promiscuous.’’ This differential stigma is especially important because Betancourt et al. found that community acceptance was a key protective factor for adjustment of child soldiers after their return to the community.

Many children involved in armed conflict are not cognitively mature enough to comprehend the seriousness of what they are made to do.2 This immaturity makes them less likely to contradict orders and more likely to be fearless. They are therefore ideal tools to be used in the hazardous and inhumane activities in the front line. De Silva DGH, Hobbs CJ.2001

In addition to post-traumatic stress disorder, which has been described as an inevitable consequence of the war, an issue of concern is the effect it has on the development of the personality of the child. What the children go through in the formative years of their lives will have lasting effects on their personality. These children will carry to their adult life the belief that violence is the easy way to achieve their goals. Experiences in childhood help adults to judge right from wrong. For these children their war-enmeshed experiences will be the determinants.

Symptoms of severe emotional and psychological distress in young former combatants are taken to indicate that they are cen (mad) and have become possessed by the spirits of the people they have killed (Jareg & Falk, 1999)

former fighters of all ages are subject to societal disapproval and dread

The first assumption is that because armed violence is often the means by which societies are destroyed and moral precepts of justice and social responsibility are broken, violence must be a universal infringement of morality. Thus, there is tacit acceptance that armed violence is in itself inherently immoral

Second, young people are commonly thought to lack the experience, insight, and reasoning required to appreciate the enormity of acts such as killing, torture, and rape. Children in middle childhood and early adolescence in particular are believed to be unable to fully comprehend the moral consequences of the choices hey make during war, especially when these choices involve violence. In this way, children, whose minds are regarded as less “formed” than those of adults, are taken to be less able to reason and to be more pliable morally.

reinforcing this assertion, military leaders often consciously recruit children on the understanding that they are more amenable to indoctrination, more loyal, and less questioning of commands that present moral difficulties

Third, it is assumed that what is experienced and practiced on a regular basis may acquire normative value. Hence, related to the idea that the young lack the ability to attach moral meanings to violence is the notion that children who engage in violence over long periods of time are likely to lose the ability to empathize with others and begin to internalize violent behavior as normal practice.

Childhood is a social construction that varies in form and content across cultures and social groups. What is deemed fitting, good, or bad for children is largely defined by localized understandings and values (Blanchet, 1996; Harkness & Super, 1996; James & Prout, 1997).

This is illustrated by an example from Ethiopia, where the ability of boys to come to terms with what they had done as combatants was highly influenced by whether they had undergone initiation prior to conscription (de Berry & Boyden, 2000) Those already initiated into manhood showed better resilience than non-initiates of the same age. Following investigations, practitioners working with the boys were able to attribute this to the fact that in Ethiopia, manhood as a social state accommodates the activities of warfare, whereas child hood does not. It follows that in many parts of the world, children who fight enter a social condition that denigrates the accepted status of childhood. As a consequence, young combatants constitute a dilemma for adult society.

But there are also limitations in the research in matters of substance. The main emphasis of the literature has been the exploration of age-related differences in moral reasoning, as seen in the seminal work of Jean Piaget (1932) and Lawrence Kohlberg (1976). Piaget, for instance, found that children’s views on transgressions and their ideas about authority and justice differed markedly from those of adults, and hence changed significantly over the course of development. Both he and Kohlberg held that moral knowledge and reasoning progress through stages in an established sequence, and are based in the development of higher cognitive capacity for objective, rational thought. By linking the early stages of childhood cognition with prerational thought, Piaget and Kohlberg perpetuated a view of children as irrational up to a fairly advanced point in their lives. This view still permeates much of the literature on childhood. It provides a basis for arguing that the young enter into a moral state comparatively late in childhood, thereby lending scientific credibility to societal fears about the moral disarray of children in war. Despite the apparent consensus between science and popular belief, the contention that younger children lack moral reasoning does not always match the empirical evidence. For example, Richard Schweder and Nancy Much (1991) found that by age 5, children in India and the United States have already acquired distinctive values and attitudes characteristic of their respective cultures. This implies that by the time they reach middle childhood, the life phase when military recruitment becomes a possibility in areas affected by conflict, children may not be as liable to moral disorientation as many imagine. Also, it is very possible that children who bear major economic and social responsibilities, such as the generation of household income or care of younger siblings, may develop greater moral competence than the kind of children studied by Piaget and Kohlberg, who were in most cases economically dependent school pupils.

Anthropology and cultural developmental psychology are clear that socially organized human activity, as opposed to universal psychological and biological structures, is fundamental in the laying down of moral codes during childhood. Children’s cognitive development is regarded as inseparable from their social milieu “in that what children learn is a cultural curriculum: from their earliest days, they build on the skills and perspectives of their society with the aid of other people” (Rogoff, 1991, p.190). Central to any cultural curriculum are the developmental goals and objectives of a society, because these not only define the opportunities for and constraints to children’s development but circumscribe children’s actual behavior, thinking, and adaptation (Harkness & Super, 1996). In much of the literature, emphasis is given to the management, care, and training of children, for it is through these primary relationships and activities that the developmental goals and hence the social and moral assumptions of a culture are inculcated (Durkin, 1998; Lave, 1988).

Some researchers stress the developmental role of participation in activities that are particularly valued for specific genders and ages (Dawes, 1999; Woodhead,1999). They argue that it is through repetition of such activities that children develop the competencies that are prized in their culture. This argument supports the contention that children may become habituated to violent behavior established through long-term engagement in armed combat, especially where violence is glorified through heroic imagery (Dawes, 2003).

such as Lave (1988) and Rogoff (1991), employed the metaphor of apprenticeship to convey how the young advance their social and cognitive skills through direct but guided engagement in social activity.

Finally, a major assertion of the developmental literature is that children’s morality arises from their membership in a moral community. In this sense, most modern ideas about cognitive growth in context seem to take for granted that children have access to life choices that reflect the moral repertoire of their community and thereby reinforce moral learning. Moral reasoning is to some extent dependent on growing up in surroundings with well-defined, meaningful role opportunities and responsibilities within extended families and communities. Yet, during war these conditions seldom apply. Adults who would normally be expected to guide children by positive example may themselves betray fundamental moral precepts through their complicity with violence, collaboration with the enemy, criminality, and other actions committed in the name of survival.

Some of the researchers who do consider moral development during conflict argue that children who actively engage in combat will experience profound developmental disorientation (for example, Garbarino, Kostelny, & Dubrow, 1991; Lyons, 1971; McHan, 1985). Among the effects they cite are becoming “stuck” in a primitive stage of moral development, increasing aggressive behavior, emotional numbing and loss of empathy, and changes in attitudes, beliefs, and personality. Bruce Auster and his colleagues (Auster, Whitelaw, Roberts, & Shapiro, 2000) stated categorically that “war deforms their [children’s] sense of right and wrong, turning twelve-year-olds into cold-blooded killers” (p. 8). According to the bleakest interpretation, effective moral socialization ceases altogether during armed political conflict in the sense that the “behavior of the whole society is based on … the denial of human values” (Punamäki, 1987, p. 33).

Straker et al. (1992) noted an increase in categorical thinking, lack of flexibility in problem solving, and readiness to resort to violence

Raija–Leena Punamäki’s (1996) study of Israeli Jewish children, she observed that a strong ideological commitment can entail the denial of moral dilemmas inherent in topics like war and peace and considerations about “the enemy.” Children with strong ideological commitment tended to adhere to beliefs and explanation systems that were internally consistent and disallowed contradiction. Nevertheless, the children struggled with the apparent moral dilemma of belief in basic human values of love and brotherhood and the patriotic demands of fighting the enemy and killing in war. They reasoned that in general war is bad and causes heartless suffering, but that the particular war between Israel and its Arab neighbors was necessary because it brings security for citizens and rightfully punishes the enemy.

during war, adults and children often feel obliged by the exigencies of survival to breach moral codes that they hold dear. Preservation of self and others who are cherished may in this way lead to actions that imply a denial of collective values. Nevertheless, a rejection or distortion of such values is not necessarily indicated: Well aware that they have committed wrong in the eyes of their community and society, many of the young people who have killed in war do in fact experience a sense of shame and remorse and many yearn for forgiveness.

In contexts where defense of family, community, or nation is a socially acknowledged duty, resorting to violence may be the only moral choice available.

Thus, far from indicating moral brutalization, young people’s decisions to enter combat may be based on powerful sentiments of grievance or injustice and informed by strict moral codes (Hart, 2002). Their involvement in conflict may be motivated by a sense of filial duty and loyalty to the community or a higher political or religious cause. Hence, willingness to engage in violence could reflect the obligations young people feel to ensure retribution for and restore honor to those individuals, groups, or beliefs that are cherished and have been defiled. Therefore, engagement in political struggle may in fact be an assertion of enhanced moral commitment and reasoning.

In their examination of the psychological experiences of political violence to clinical syndromes, studies have been criticized for their tendency to limit their foci. It is important to realize that children can also be affected in more subtle ways, which may involve their moral and political socialization and cognitive development (Baker, El husseini, Arafat, Ajush 1991 ; Dawes 1990; Gibson 1986).

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