“Parenting in times of war: supporting caregivers and children in crisis”

Frog Hollow Neighbourhood House photography of child programming.
Frog Hollow Neighbourhood House photography of child programming.

Katie Murphy, Early Childhood Development Technical Advisor, New York, NY, USA; Sandra Maignant, Child Protection Technical Advisor, London; Laura Boone, Senior Child Protection Technical Advisor, London, UK; and Sarah Smith, Director of Child and Youth Protection and Development, New York, NY, USA; International Rescue Committee contributed an article on “Parenting in times of war: supporting caregivers and children in crisis,” for the June edition of Early Childhood Matters.

The article highlights recent findings from the International Rescue Committee’s parenting programmes in Syria, which have shown that humanitarian interventions to support and guide parents and caregivers in times of war can mitigate the negative effects of violence and chaos on children and promote their resilience and development.

At first glance, one might think that this information would have little direct impact on the programs we offer. However, with many programs dealing with refugee families from all over the world who have been directly impacted by war and/or social breakdown in their home countries, the challenges and trauma these families have faced continue to impact their lives as they transition to their new lives in Canada. Beyond that, some at-risk families attending our programs are living in home conditions of prolonged stress and uncertainty, sometimes with the impact of random domestic violence that can create levels of stress similar to those experienced in combat zones. There is learning to be extracted from the studies of families in war-torn areas of the world that is applicable to support techniques for refugee families and families experiencing extreme stress in their domestic situation.

The article points out, “In December 2014, an estimated 230 million children, or one in ten, were living in a country affected by armed conflict (UNICEF, 2014), and that “an estimated 14 million children living in the region have been affected by conflicts in Syria and Iraq (UNICEF, 2015). The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks 2015 report “ranked ‘interstate conflict with regional consequences’ as the most likely global risk for the period of 2015-2025 (World Economic Forum, 2015).”

Studies have shown that children are particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of war, experiencing “high levels of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and anxiety disorders (Barbarin et al.m 2001; RRnYkw et al.,2009)” and are also highly sensitive to ambient violence: “the trauma they endure when learning of a family member’s violent experience or witnessing violence is analogous to the trauma of directly being victims (Barbarin et al., 2001)”

On a more positive note, “evidence indicates that parents and caregivers can help build children’s resilience and support children’s health and development through nurturing, responsive and consistent care (Shonkoff et al., 2012; Masten and MOnon, 2015).”

The authors point out the importance of the psychological and emotional well being of caregivers as a predictor for the physical, social and emotional health of war-affected children (Dybdahl, 2001), from the pre-natal period onwards. “While the precise mechanisms that link maternal distress and depression with children’s developmental outcomes are the subject of ongoing investigation, evidence suggests that the cross-placental transmission of stress hormones causes a disruption in the development of the fetal prefrontal cortex and stress response system (Van den Bergh et al., 2005).” Parental stress and exposure to violence during a child’s developmental years can lead to “maladaptive caregiving practices…and can result in low levels of parent-child attachment (McMahon et al., 2006; Field, 2010).”

The article identifies a number of strategies that have been shown to mitigate the negative affects on children of being reared in circumstances of extreme stress. These include:

  • The use of adult learning strategies that draw on Bandura’s Social Learning Theory and employ active demonstrations, collaborative discussions, positive reinforcement, and home visits that engage caregivers and children in interactive activities.
  • Comprehensive training of staff and para-professionals, using an evidence-based curriculum
  • Program content that recognizes and builds on existing positive parenting practices
  • Community support systems to strengthen social cohesion

(Engle et al., 2011; Mejia et al., 2012; Aboud et al., 2013; Yousafzai et al., 2014)

The authors go on to say, “For caregivers living in conflict and post-conflict settings, key programme elements also include trauma-focused psychosocial support for parents and caregivers, along with specific content that addresses daily stressors experienced by caregivers (Miller and Rasmussen, 2010; Betancourt, 2015), and content that aims to strengthen caregivers’ responses to children’s trauma, to aid recovery and healing.”

The article concludes by pointing out, “As highlighted by decades of research from the fields of developmental psychology, epigenetics and neurology, nurturing, consistent and responsible care during early childhood is an essential human need that has significant implications for society’s future health and well-being. Ensuring that young children receive sufficient care should therefore be an essential component of any humanitarian response.”

Read the full article on page 54 of Early Childhood Matters magazine.