Being exposed to violence in the home during war increases children’s risk of developing problems in mental health and psychosocial wellbeing (MHPSW), a small but robust evidence base shows. Conversely, this evidence shows that supportive parenting can be a protective factor against the demonstrated negative effects of war on children’s MHPSW. Evidence from multiple sources increasingly shows that exposure to war alone cannot account for how children exposed to similar war events experience different mental and psychosocial states and trajectories. Other factors, including home life, provide complementary, at times even better, explanations for children’s MHPSW. In fact, in many cases, factors that traumatise children stem not only from war events but also from everyday hardships. Homelife can be a moderator, and potentially a mediator, of the effects of war (see e.g. recent literature reviews by Cummings, Merrilees, Taylor, & Mondi, 2017; Miller & Jordans, 2016).
The issue is particularly significant because, by late 2016, nearly one in four children worldwide – 535 million children – lived in countries affected by conflict or disaster, according to estimates by
UNICEF (2016). Violence in the home, and known risk factors for it, often increase in wartime, though the dynamics in this are complex and not automatic (Rubenstein & Stark, 2017). At the
same time, some children exhibit resilience. The findings below, based on a rapid literature review, explore the role of home-based factors in this. The findings are most about children between 11 and 16 years old and mention no strong gender differences in most cases.
Violence in the home negatively affects children’s MHPSW in wartime, both as an independent factor and as a worsening influence on the effects of war exposure.
- Violence in the home has strong negative effects on children’s MHPSW, distinct from war, as shown e.g. in a cross-sectional study in Afghanistan (Panter-Brick, Eggerman, Gonzalez, & Safdar, 2009).
- Exposure to family violence worsened the aggression of children exposed to political violence (longitudinal study on Palestine by (Boxer et al., 2013). Further, children exposed to intense political violence who experienced little positive parenting were more likely to report post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) two years after baseline (Dubow et al., 2012).
- Inconsistent parenting and high psychological control by parents were linked to higher rates of psychological symptoms in several cross-sectional studies on Palestine (cited by Cummings et al., 2017, p. 51). Punitive parenting was significantly associated with aggressive behaviours among boys and girls exposed to military violence, a cross-sectional study in Palestine found (Qouta, Punamäki, Miller, & El-Sarraj, 2008).
- Negative parent-child interactions resulted in poor mental health even among children who had otherwise shown resilience to substantial stressors from socio-economic hardships and war (longitudinal study in Uganda by Klasen, Oettingen, Daniels, Post, et al., 2010). Among child soldiers who had experienced traumatising war events and community violence, lifetime domestic violence had distinct detrimental effects on mental health (cross-sectional study in Uganda by Klasen, Oettingen, Daniels, & Adam, 2010).
- Stigmatisation by family and community largely explained the impact of wartime sexual violence on affected girls’ mental health (cross-sectional study in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, by Verelst, De Schryver, De Haene, Broekaert, & Derluyn, 2014).
- Children with relations of rivalry with their siblings had worse symptoms from military trauma (cross-sectional study on Palestine by Peltonen, Qouta, El Sarraj, & Punamäki, 2010).
- Higher levels of family violence and family conflict significantly predicted a worsening of several mental health symptoms, in a longitudinal study in Afghanistan (Panter-Brick, Goodman, Tol, & Eggerman, 2011).
- Over two generations in the same families, both war and child maltreatment led to poor mental health (cross-sectional study on Uganda by Olema, Catani, Ertl, Saile, & Neuner, 2014).
Conversely, children going through warfare better when they have supportive home lives.
- Parental support in wartime had significant positive effects in its own right on children’s MHPSW (cross-sectional study on Palestine by Harel-Fisch et al., 2010).
- Further, positive parenting, such as warm, supportive, and non-punitive practices, buffered the negative effects of war exposure on a range of outcomes in children’s MHPSW and enabled children to better adjust. This was found in several cross-sectional studies on Palestine (Cummings et al., 2017; Harel-Fisch et al., 2010; Qouta et al., 2008), and in longitudinal studies (on Palestine, Dubow et al., 2012); and Uganda, Klasen, Oettingen, Daniels, Post, et al., 2010).
- Children’s connectedness to their families significantly protected displaced Chechen adolescents – especially boys – against internalising symptoms such as depression and anxiety. This is most robust for boys (cross-sectional study by Betancourt et al., 2012).
- Following intense war violence, children who kept having the lowest psychological trauma were those with higher secure attachment to their father, compared to children in trajectories of recovery and of worsening trauma, one longitudinal study in Palestine found (Punamäki, Palosaari, Diab, Peltonen, & Qouta, 2015).
- Positive and non-competitive relationships with siblings protected children against the harm caused by military trauma (Peltonen et al., 2010).
- Decreases in violence and conflict within the family over a year were associated with better outcomes in children’s mental health (Panter-Brick et al., 2011).
- Promotive and protective factors that supported children’s resilience and good mental health, including family factors, had effects that were specific to gender, symptom, and phases of armed conflicts, according to qualitative and quantitative evidence identified by a systematic review (Tol, Song, & Jordans, 2013).
Among the references examined, only one study identified no mediating effects – positive or negative – from maternal attachment or family atmosphere, taken as factors between an intervention and children’s resilience (Diab, Peltonen, Qouta, Palosaari, & Punamäki, 2015).
Lastly, there is a consensus in the literature that “risk and protective processes interplay at multiple social-ecological levels to shape youth development”, from children’s immediate environment to society at large (Cummings et al., 2017, p. 49; also see Miller & Jordans, 2016). Consequently, children’s functioning may vary in different settings (e.g. home vs. school), depending on how severely war has affected each setting, and on the unique supports and challenges for children within each setting (Ungar, cited in Cummings et al., 2017, p. 49).