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The suffering of children in war

March 13, 2017

Children in Syria are growing up as "generation trauma." Many have never lived a life without war. It is extremely difficult to process such experiences, says psychologist Elise Bittenbinder, who has also seen healing.

Young children in rubble-filled street
Image: picture-alliance/AA/H. Nasar

Deutsche Welle: About three million children in Syria have only seen war, death and destruction in their lifetime. How has that affected them?

Elise Bittenbinder: Every human has experienced a minor or major trauma in life. Normally, we process these fears and they do not become chronic. We return to normal life and integrate the past experiences into our lives. Children from war zones have suffered greatly and experienced major losses like the death of parents of friends, but also the loss of school or their homes if they had to flee.

Some of them develop certain traumas in the form of symptoms that remain if they are not treated, like headaches, sleep disorders, difficulties concentrating or bedwetting. Or they experience what we call flashbacks and do not know whether they are in the present or past or just experiencing that again. And then there is a pathological fear that remains even when the experience happened a long time back.

An 11-year-old boy described this very well. He said, "I am constantly tired; I always think of certain pictures and they scare me a lot. That is why I cannot concentrate at school. Then I am afraid that something will happen to my parents. Then everything hurts and I cannot eat anything."

Man with child in his arms in ruined house
Children in war zones constantly fear bomb attacksImage: Getty Images/AFP/S. Al-Doumy

Do children who suffer from war traumas have any chances of leading a normal life?

When we talk to traumatized children or adults from war zones about their experiences, they often say that they would rather forget the bad experiences and lead a normal life. And when we tell them that is not possible, many nod. So they seem to know that the past will always be part of their lives.

But what they can do is to make a new purpose in life more important and to focus on it. Then the bad experiences can be pushed into the background and will not dominate life as much.

How can this be achieved in practice?

It depends on what kinds of opportunities and chances they have after such traumatic experiences. The important thing is that children have hope, prospects in life and experiences that make them feel confident and creative - and not just bruised.

This could be experiences in sports, a community or well-functioning family circles. But with some children, it can be the fact that they understand why their experiences have such a strong effect on them and why they cannot forget them.

What happens if the children do not receive help?

If children who have intense traumatic symptoms do not receive help, then the symptoms can become chronic. We know that they can last a lifetime and sometimes even be passed on to the next generation. There is evidence of people's helplessness developing into aggression and anger if they do not somehow manage to process the experience in a good way. If a person does not have the opportunity to express that, then violence can ultimately ensue.

Elise Bittenbinder
Prospects for the future are essential, Bittenbinder saysImage: BafF

A study conducted by the organization "Save the Children" says that many millions of Syrian children and teens inflict harm on themselves or turn to drugs and alcohol to relieve the stress. What does this huge number of traumatized children mean for the future of the country?

Think about what happened in Germany after World War II. There were many traumatized people - children and adults. What helped them was the mutual feeling of "now we are rebuilding the country." And the subsequent economic boom helped people focus on new things. A contrary example is Kosovo. It is highly problematic that there are no opportunities for young people now because the economy is not doing well.

So what are the consequences of trauma combined with economic decline?

They do not only lead to a personal lack of prospects. It means that something quite terrible has happened but nothing can be done about it because there are simply no economic opportunities. If there are many people in such a situation, then of course it means that the entire country is affected and an overall depressed mood can develop.

Elise Bittenbinder is the chairman of Germany's federal psychosocial centers for refugees and torture Victims (BAfF). For over 25 years, the specialist for child and adolescent psychotherapy has been working with war victims, child soldiers and severely traumatized people from crisis regions.

The interview was conducted by Jeannette Cwienk.