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.