Children and Conflict

Child refugees and asylum seekers are particularly at risk of developing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Trauma among young children and infants also increases the risk of developing physical and mental disorders in adulthood, including depression, chronic pain, heart disorders and diabetes. Symptoms in children usually consists of withdrawal, hyper alertness, emotional numbness, and flashbacks but can vary depending on their age and the setting.

Age 1-5

In toddlers and younger children, tantrums, clinginess and fussiness may increase as well as passivity and noise sensitivity. Children may appear to regress and go back to not speaking or being toilet trained.

Age 6-11

Older children may be distracted, angry, feel guilty, experience nightmares and sleep disturbances and , regress in their abilities. They may refuse to do things they used to enjoy such as a loss of interest in activities and hobbies, or refuse to leave home such as to attend school.

Age 12+

Adolescents experiencing trauma may become more rebellious or self-conscious. Their friendships and relationships may be affected, and they may partake in more risk taking behaviour, including alcohol, drugs or self-harm.

Rates of PTSD among refugee children from Cambodia was 50%, however rates vary depending on the child’s individual circumstances and are impacted on where the child is settled. For example, children found to be resettled in high income countries, such as Canada, experience lower rates of PTSD than those seeking safety in countries neighbouring the country they fled. According to Trauma UK, this is ‘probably because life in a stable, safe country offers children more protection from ongoing trauma than life in more tenuous circumstances’. According to the Canadian Paediatric Society, it has also been noted that “PTSD in refugees seems to cluster in families. It is not clear whether this is due to shared experience, compromised parenting resulting from earlier trauma, or a genetic susceptibility to trauma”

Furthermore, in studies of Syrian children there was a 70% chance of developing separation anxiety, with some children not even allowing their parents to attend the toilet or to shower. This adds to the stress levels for the parents. Dr Downs’ adds ‘Adults often avoiding discussing difficult and upsetting subjects in front of children, in order to protect them. Children however then learn not to speak about these things which prevents them from processing and understanding what they have seen. This can lead to trauma in the long term.’

It is important therefore that children learn that they can speak about things, and do not have to protect the feelings of adults. It may be that children open up more to teachers or other adults, in order to try and protect their own family from upset. Parents themselves may sometimes struggle to identify signs of PTSD in their children. Reasons for this can include the parent experiencing PTSD themselves which makes it difficult to identify and recognise their child’s emotions or to discuss traumatic events. Parents and other carers can feel guilty or responsible for not being about to protect the children/children. Cultural factors may make certain subjects ‘taboo’ and therefore not open to discussion, and sometimes parents believe symptoms to down to a child going through a development ‘phase’.

It is important to help children to understand what is happening, by speaking to them about the traumatic events in an age appropriate way. When children are free to speak about traumatic events they will process what is happening and feel less alone. It is important that children know you are there for them to speak with, and that they do not need to protect you from upset and that you will not judge them. Talking to them will prevent them from coming up with their own understanding, which may include blaming themselves.

Depending on their age children may find it easier to communicate through play and creativity; such as dance, drawing or writing. When children express how they feel, the effects of the trauma are usually reduced. It is important that any discussions are done sensitively, and the child is allowed to open up in their own time without intrusive questioning or pressure.

You may find that children take a while to comprehend what has happened, and they may have a lot of questions or you may find themselves asking the same question multiple times. It is important to be patient, use clear language and be consistent in your response.

The Red Cross advises keeping things as normal as possible for children; ‘children feel safer when they know what to expect, for example, a child continuing normal activities such as going to school, clubs etc.’ Try to create some familiarity around them, through the belongings and activities that they surround themselves in. Children benefit from the comfort and stability of routine, so having a consistent weekly activities and daily routines such as a bed time routine, can help children to feel safe and calm.

It is important to validate children’s emotions. When people experience trauma, they often appear unable to regulate or control their emotions and to suffer from unexpected outbursts. This can be even more so in children. It is important to be consistent in your response, and try to avoid being triggered as their reactions are not personal to you. Help them to see that their feelings are valid and understandable.

Useful resources

British Red Cross

Dealing with Trauma as a Child (English) coping-with-trauma---children_final.pdf (

Dealing with Trauma as a Child (Ukrainian) How to talk to children about war - Ukrainian (2).pdf

Dealing with Trauma as a Child (Russian) wellbeing-for-ukrainian-families-arriving-in-the-uk_russian.pdf (

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