The Impact of War on Children

By: Betsy Pownall

Prolonged exposure to war, living in areas of high conflict, and forced migration create a high risk for children in their mental and physical health. Many children are thrown into a state of “toxic stress” which could impact them for life if left untreated. Here are some ways children are affected:

Anxiety, loneliness, and insecurity: many children in war zones have lost their homes, been displaced from their neighborhoods, and have had to leave their friends and families. Children where this has occurred face high rates of depression and anxiety. Areas where there are repeated attacks will lead to children living in constant fear which leaves them profoundly worried for their safety and the safety of those around them.

Emotional Withdrawal: when exposed to a high degree of conflict, children may become desensitized and emotionally numb. They may imitate the aggressive behavior they witness, and consider violence as normal. Their ability to create and sustain relationships can be negatively impacted.

Aggression: children growing up with violence and armed conflict in their environment, may show aggression and withdrawal. They may start fighting and bullying other children.

Psychosomatic Symptoms: living in areas of high conflict may exhibit high levels of stress in children’s bodies, such as headaches, chest aches, difficulty breathing, and, at times, loss of movement in their arms and legs. Many children will have difficulty speaking, may begin stuttering, and some may experience partial amnesia.

Self-Harm: if a child sees no way out, they may try to escape their surroundings by using drugs, alcohol, self-harm, and suicide.

It is important to keep in mind that children are responding in a healthy way to a dangerous, pathological situation and that there can be wide differences in how children respond to the same thing. 

Interventions for children of violence need to provide basic needs such as safety, security, shelter, and continuity of care by a family member or loved one. 

As a child’s basic needs are met, psychological first aid should focus on reducing the post-trauma distress. Eight core actions need to be taken: contact and engagement, safety and comfort, stabilization, information gathering, practical assistance, connection with social supports, information on coping support, and connection with collaborative services. 

Building back ‘the normal’ within the abnormal is important, such as instituting a schedule and daily routine, schooling if possible, opportunities to play and socialize, and providing opportunities to express themselves and process emotions and memories. Supporting children also means supporting parents so they can care for their children. Studies have shown that parents tend to show less warmth and more harshness toward their children when they have been exposed to war. Helping parents maintain warm relationships with their children might foster healthy adjustment in their children.

War and military aggression violate children’s basic human rights, can have a huge impact on their development, and their physical and mental health, and can have long-term consequences. The experience of war and conflict for children runs diametrically opposed to their developmental needs and their right to grow up in a safe, predictable environment. 

Healing from chronic stress does not, generally, happen naturally. It will be the work of the community, the government, and the world to help children exposed to violence and war.


“5 Ways Conflict Impacts Children’s Mental Health”; Save the Children.

Catani, C. Mental Health of Children Living in War Zones: a risk and protection perspective. World Psychiatry, 2018 Feb; 17(1) 104-105.

Bürgin, D., Anagnostopoulos, D, ESCAP, Vitiello, B, et al. Impact of War and Forced Displacement on children’s mental health — multilevel, needs-oriented, and trauma-informed approaches. Eur. Child Adolesc. Psychiatry, 2022; 31(6) 845-853.

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Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day

The current events of the world can create feelings of stress for many children. That, paired with the recent history of isolation and a loss of support systems, such as in-person school, has resulted in all kids feeling an increased sense of stress in their lives.  Helping kids deal with the stressors of uncertainty will help them be more successful in managing challenging times ahead.

Big Life Journal has some helpful resources to help kids deal with stress, including printable guides and worksheets. Some ideas for helping kids deal with stress include:

  • Re-frame stress–Stress can lead to growth if children understand that stressful situations will not last forever. These situations represent challenges to overcome and lessons to learn.  Seek to understand your child’s stress rather than dismiss it
  • Shift from a fixed to a growth mindset–it’s not fixed, it can be improved, and you do have the power to influence the situation.
  • Stop catastrophic thinking–do not dismiss their worry. Their concerns are very real to them and there have been a lot of reasons to worry recently.  But help them put words to their fears and focus on what they can control
  • Practice Problem solving–listen, discuss the positives and negatives of a situation, brainstorm solutions
  • Try stress management techniques, such as meditation, mindfulness, deep breathing, or yoga exercises for kids.

Although many kids may experience stress, there are also many kids experiencing a higher level of mental health issues.  On May 7th we can observe Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day. The purpose of this awareness day is to increase public awareness about the needs of children with serious mental illness, provide information on evidence-based practices, and encourage those who need help to seek treatment.

According to the World Health Organization:

  • One in six U.S. children ages 6-17 has a treatable mental health disorder such as depression, anxiety problems or ADHD.‍
  • Half of all mental health conditions start at 14 years of age, but most cases are undetected and untreated.
  • The consequences of not addressing adolescent mental health conditions extend to adulthood, impairing both physical and mental health and limiting opportunities to lead fulfilling lives as adults.

It is important to have conversations with your children, to recognize when their mental health issues are more than just expected stress responses, and to get them help. Early intervention can have positive results that benefit them for the rest of their life. Therapy can have a significant impact on a child. And more severe issues can be addressed through a consult with your mental health provider as well as a doctor or psychiatrist if needed. Teaching our kids that it is okay to not be okay sometimes, is an important first step in them feeling like they can ask for help when they are struggling.  Taking care of a child’s mental health is as important as their physical health. We can create a safe space for our children, so they can feel good about themselves. 

Follow the resources below for more:

Virtual Events For Parents & Caring Adults 

What’s in the Guide for Parents: Caring for Kids with Mental Illness

Helping Children Cope 

Need Help? | Kids Help Phone 

Youth Mental Health | Mental Health America

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How to Calm Down Your Anxious Child

Do you ever feel like nothing you say or do can help your child calm down? If so, you’re in the right place. Here are a few ways you can help manage your child’s anxiety.


When a child is anxious, it’s typical for them to take fast and shallow breaths, which can actually make their anxiety worse.

Now, if your child is having trouble with their breathing, you can practice with them.

Show them how to breathe in through their nose and out through their mouth at a slow pace.

Narrow Focus

If your child has a great imagination, this may be the technique for them.

Simply ask them to imagine their happy place.

What is a happy place, you ask?

It’s a place they feel comfortable, relaxed and of course happy.

If they want to go the extra mile, they can even draw their happy place! Your fridge can never have too much artwork, after all.

Embrace Humor

Never underestimate the power of a good laugh.

Whether your little one likes to tell jokes, play games, or watch a funny show, every bit of laughter helps.

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