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5 Ways Conflict Impacts Children's Mental Health

Prolonged exposure to war and uncertainty means that many children are in a state of 'toxic stress'. Children in Syria, Yemen, Ukraine and many other war-torn countries share the same experiences of loss, and destruction and could have lifelong implications on their physical and psychological well-being. 

In Gaza, children's mental health is being pushed beyond breaking point after six months of siege and relentless bombardment. 

Around the world, children living in conflict zones have been bombed and starved. They have seen their friends and families die, and schools and hospitals turned to rubble. They have been denied food, medicine and vital aid, and been torn away from their lives as they flee the fighting. The psychological toll of living through continuous conflict, not knowing if this day will be their last, is enormous.

Surviving is just the beginning for them. Distressing conflict-related events can affect children's psychological and emotional well-being in various ways, and have a long-term impact if left untreated.

Solomon Islands, a girl in a pink shirt shows the remaining debris following high sea levels near her home.

1. Anxiety, loneliness and insecurity

Many children living in conflict zones have lost their homes through shelling, have been displaced from their neighborhoods, and have had to leave their friends and family. Such loss and disruption can lead to high rates of depression and anxiety in war-affected children.

The importance of family, and the nurture and support that it provides to children, means that being separated from parents can be one of the most significant war ordeals of all, particularly for younger children.

“[The children] are always stressed. Constant anxiety. We notice that Syrian children, through our work with them, they are not like other children. They’re always stressed. Any unfamiliar noise, if a chair moves, or if a door bangs shut, they have a reaction. This is the result of their fear – of the sound of planes, of rockets, of war,” explained Ahmed, a recreational coordinator in Idlib, Syria

In Yemen, repeated attacks on schools and civilians have led children to live in constant fear and suffer from profound negative emotions that have left them feeling worried for their safety and the safety of everyone around them.  

“Seeing the destruction and rubble left by the war in the region, especially remains of a school that a child used to attend, has contributed to the deterioration of children’s psychosocial well-being. Children are beginning to exhibit signs of chronic anxiety, fear and insecurity,” said a school principal from Taiz, Yemen. 

This constant state of anxiety can lead to bed wetting, difficulty falling asleep, nightmares, and strained relationships with their loved ones.  

In Ukraine, a girl dressed in a hat and coat stands alone against a dark background.

2. Emotional Withdrawal

Children exposed to multiple sources of violence may eventually also become desensitized and emotionally numb, which increases the possibility of them  imitating the aggressive behavior they witness and considering such violence as normal. This in turn can affect their ability to build successful relationships with others in the long run.  

Olha*, mother of seven from northern Ukraine explained: 
“We’ve become used to the bombing, it’s been almost a year already, so we’re used to it. The longer it takes, the harder it is. The children are used to shelling. When it gets too loud, they run, but otherwise, they ignore it”.

In Yemen, an aid worker from Taiz, explained a similar situation: 
“Children are growing isolated and introverted; they no longer interact with their communities and peers…some have been born into this and do not know what a friend is.”  

In Syria, a girl stands in a tent after being displaced from her home due to conflict.

3. Aggression

Children that have grown up surrounded by armed conflict may show aggression and withdrawal in their behavior with peers and family members. They may start fighting with, and shouting at their friends or bullying other children. 

One of our psychologists in southern Syria explained it like this: 

“There is a lot of pressure on children at home. There are no playgrounds, nowhere for them to play…they can’t even go on the streets. There is no option for them to leave the house, to do some activity, to play, to play football. This is why children tend to become more aggressive because they don’t get the chance to release this energy in them.” 

In one of our summer camps in Poland for refugee children from Ukraine, Maria, a psychologist at the camp, noticed an increase in aggressive behavior among children, especially adolescents:  

“Teenagers have latent aggression. And for that aggression to not be taken out at home, on parents, on their loved ones – neighbors, friends, or colleagues, here I help latent aggression come out in a playful form.” 

Afghanistan, a mother feeds her 2-year-old daughter who had been malnourished.

4. Psychosomatic Symptoms

Children in Syria have told us how their high levels of stress manifest in physical symptoms such as pains in the head and chest, difficulty breathing, and in some cases temporary loss of movement in their limbs: 

“When I sit alone and start to think, my stomach starts to hurt. This is when I really understand the situation I’m in, when I really think about it”, Tarek, 15–17 years old from Syria. 

Many children can have difficulty in speaking or begin to stutter, and some can even experience partial amnesia. 

“We see children from six to 15 who are not able to remember. The psychology of children has changed – a child is always anticipating an attack now. Children have lost their childhood.” Tamara, an aid worker in Idlid, Syria. 

Malawi, a young girl who was displaced from her home in January 2022 when cyclone Ana forced the Shira River to burst its bank, flooding her home and all of the surrounding land.

5. Turning to Self Harm

Sadly, in some cases, children see no other option than to try to escape what they are experiencing and their surroundings by using drugs and alcohol or even self-harm and suicide.    

Rasha, a teacher in southern Syria told us:

“They often take drugs to forget the current situation they’re living in, in order to feel better.”  

However, social stigma and ingrained attitudes to mental health remain a significant challenge. Drugs or perpetrating self-harm or considering suicide remain taboo topics in many communities, especially in conflict settings, where men are expected to “man up” and girls to marry. So, as a result, a lot of cases remain potentially under-reported by communities. 

What You Can Do To Help

Your donation to the Children’s Emergency Fund, an essential resource as we prepare for and respond to the significant increase in the number of children who need emotional support, helps us respond quickly to humanitarian crises across the globe that are threatening children’s lives.