Asmaa,* 14, and her seven siblings spent three days crossing the mountains into Lebanon from Syria. Before escaping, Asmaa recalls picking up her siblings and running for shelter regularly. “My 11-year-old brother used to cover his ears when the shelling was happening,” she said. ”He thought that if he closed his ears, he would not hear the shelling anymore. He stopped eating.” Photo credit: Nour Wahid / Save the Children, Feb 2016.
Children in Conflict Suffer Most
More children are being exposed to armed violence than at any time in more than 20 years. The number of verified violations perpetrated against them has reached a record high. And the damage done to many children – physically, psychologically and in terms of their development – will devastate their life chances.
Traumatized by Shelling: Asmaa’s* Story
Asmaa* was 14 when she was forced to flee Syria with her seven siblings. Their mother had just died, so Asmaa’s oldest sister led the frightened, grieving children to safety on her own.
The siblings had to try four times to escape before they were successful. Each time they failed, they were threatened and sent back. On the final attempt, they hid in a vehicle, then walked for three grueling days across the mountains to get to Lebanon.
They are all traumatized from the shelling they experienced. Asmaa’s younger brother stopped eating due to the extreme stress.
The Distinctive Ways Children are Harmed by Armed Conflict
Children suffer in conflict in different ways than adults, partly because they are physically weaker and also because they have so much at stake – their physical, mental and psychosocial development are heavily dependent on the conditions they experience as children.
Conflict affects children differently depending on a number of personal characteristics, significantly gender and age, but also disability status, ethnicity, religion and whether they live in rural or urban locations. The harm that is done to children in armed conflict is not only often more severe than that done to adults, it has longer lasting implications – for children themselves and for their societies.
A Lifelong Impact on Children’s Mental and Physical Health
Exposure to conflict, violence and insecurity can have major psychological effects on children. Unless appropriate support is provided, their distress can last well beyond the end of the conflict. Save the Children has conducted research on the impact of conflict on children’s mental health in Syria. In the study, 84% of adults and almost all children interviewed identified bombing and shelling as the number one cause of psychological stress in children’s daily lives.[i] 89% of adults said children’s behavior had become more fearful and nervous, and 71% said children increasingly suffered from frequent bed-wetting and involuntary urination – both common symptoms of toxic stress among children.
Our study also found children were displaying symptoms associated with toxic stress – a type of stress response that occurs when children experience strong, frequent or prolonged adversity, without adequate support. A continuous state of toxic stress can have a lifelong impact on children’s mental and physical health.[ii]
Toxic stress increases the likelihood of negative impacts on children’s development and health problems later in life. Given that a child’s experiences during the earliest years of life have a lasting impact on their developing brains, toxic stress has serious and enduring negative consequences on cognitive development and emotional regulation.
Specifically, the prolonged activation of stress hormones in early childhood can reduce neural connections in areas of the brain dedicated to learning and reasoning, affecting children’s abilities to perform later in their lives. In this way, conflict imposes a huge social cost on future generations.
This Is a War on Children
Sharing more details about life back home in Syria, Aasma’s older sister Jana* explained how their mother suffered from a serious heart condition, requiring regular medical attention. For several months, no one from the family was able to go outside, and their mother could not get the help she needed. Tragically, she died as a result, and just one month later, the children fled.
Both Aasma and Jana know friends who remain back home in Syria and have also lost parents. “They have been left to fend for themselves,” said Jana.
“Children don’t know what war is and they don’t really know what’s happening around them. They were asking all kind of questions like, ‘Why are we living like this – we were living in a good condition before?’”
“They saw all kinds of things. They walked by dead bodies and they were really frightened.”
Together, We Can Stop the War on Children
Save the Children leads the world in child-focused humanitarian response, including helping children heal from the physical and emotional wounds of war. Thanks to the generous support of our donors, we continue to respond to children’s unique needs some of world’s worst conflict zones, including Syria.
Today, through our Stop the War on Children campaign, we’re focusing on reaching more children with emergency assistance and lobbying world leaders to do more to protect children living in conflict.
Our teams are on the ground delivering lifesaving aid, including food, shelter and physical and mental health care. We’re protecting children, restoring educations and reuniting families torn apart by war. We are also calling on world leaders to do more to keep children safe, uphold their rights and provide the resources they need to recover and restore their lives.
Your donation today to the Syrian Children’s Relief Fund supports this critical work
*Names changed for protection.
This article has been adapted from Save the Children’s report, Stop the War on Children: Protecting Children in 21st Century Conflict
[i] Save the Children (2017), Invisible Wounds: The impact of six years of war on the mental health of Syria’s children
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