Ten-year old Mustafa* looks out over the damage done to his school in Idlib, North West Syria. Photo credit: Hurras Network / Save the Children
What Is the Impact of Conflict on Children?
Today, the nature of conflict – and its impact on children – is evolving. The world is witnessing deliberate campaigns of violence against civilians, including the targeting of schools, the abduction and enslavement of girls, and deliberate starvation.
In today’s armed conflicts, there is often no longer a clearly demarcated battlefield: children’s homes and schools are the battlefield.
The Disproportionate Impact of Conflict on Children
The nature of conflict has changed, putting children in the frontline in new and terrible ways. Wars are lasting longer. They are more likely to be fought in urban areas amongst civilian populations leading to deaths and life-changing injuries, and laying waste to the infrastructure needed to guarantee access to food and water. Attacks on schools and hospitals are up.
Children are disproportionately suffering the consequences of these brutal trends.
- We are seeing more children facing unimaginable mental and physical trauma.
- More children are going hungry.
- More children are falling victim to preventable diseases.
- More children are out of school.
- More children are at risk of sexual violence and recruitment by armed groups.
- More children are trapped on the frontline without access to humanitarian aid.
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 Emotional Effects of War on Children Can Have Lifelong Impact
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.
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 in some of the world’s worst conflict zones.
Today, 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 Children's Emergency Fund supports this critical work.
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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