On November 3, 2019, the New York Times Magazine featured a photo-essay, “How Does the Human Soul Survive Atrocity?” written by Jennifer Percy, with haunting photographs of war-affected children by Adam Ferguson. This feature brought readers face-to-face with some of the Iraqi children who experienced the violence and horror of ISIS captivity and are now suffering serious mental-health problems. This photo-essay does what news does best, it brings to our attention experiences of other people around the world, in this case the terrible damage done by ISIS to the hearts, spirits and minds of Iraqi children, and the important, but inadequate response to help them. While this story is important and the images are captivating, it is not the whole picture of children and war. I should know. I have spent over 20 years carrying out research with children and youth in warzones and sites of violence.
The labels and categories given to the young people living in warzones and violent environment—children in poverty, child soldiers, child insurgents, child grooms and brides, street children, children born of rape—often hide more than they reveal. Daily we are confronted with images of such children suffering. Yet in the actual accounts of conflict, they are often ignored, their agency is erased, and they are cast as ubiquitous victims, pawns or “ticking time bombs.”[i] One thing I know from many years of working with war-affected young people is that we should never dismiss those who have suffered through violence and hardship as a “lost generation”, an unfortunate term I have heard used many times. There are no lost generations. In fact, I argue, these young people may be the very ones we turn to in order to understand and address some of the most serious problems besetting their countries and our world.
Meeting truly complicated and inspiring people in every crisis-affected location I traveled to made me wonder what it is that makes some people able to not only survive but to thrive in the face of such tremendous odds? Is there something special about them? Is it something about their environment? Or is it a particular combination of both?
Curious to know more, I looked at what the research on war-affected young people had to say. Here’s what I found. Given the deprivations and horrors that many children and youth encounter during war, it’s hardly surprising that most research looks to understand how this harms them and identify what could be done in an attempt to protect them from the effects of war, or at least lessen the effects. Indeed, the majority of research on war-affected children and youth has focused on the ones who are suffering and not functioning well. Intuitively this makes sense. You run to the house that is on fire to assist the people there, racing past the other houses not on fire, paying them little to no attention, not pausing to ask why they too are not on fire.
Embarking down this new path, I found that there are relatively few in-depth studies that try to understand how children experience the stress of violence, suffering and loss while remaining strong, wise, hopeful and loving. In even fewer accounts are young people’s voices heard or their daily lives presented. Given the well documented short- and long-term negative consequences of violence and war on young people, I am convinced that we need to pay more attention to what helps them be more resilient in the face of often tremendous cruelty, grinding hardships, penetrating fear and repeated insults to their self-esteem. For psychologists, resilience is the process of adjusting well when confronted by significant hardship, trauma, disaster, dangers or stress.[ii] Don’t get me wrong, resilient people often experience considerable emotional, mental and physical distress in their lives. Yet it is their ability to “bounce back” from truly tough experiences that I believe has so much to teach us.[iii]
It would be immoral to suggest we continue war-making unabated and just strive to make children and youth more resilient to its harms. Yet it is important to try and identify factors and processes that help protect children and youth from the many risks and harms of violence and war and enable them to have fruitful lives.
The fields of developmental psychology and positive psychology have spent decades looking into what promotes resilience in children, although they have not focused on children affected by war. Looking over all the collective knowledge on developmental resilience they conclude:
“Resilience in children arises from ordinary processes. Evidence indicates that children who `make it’ have basic human protective systems operating in their favor. Resilience comes not from rare and special qualities, but from the operations of ordinary human systems in the biology and psychology of children, from their relationships in the family and community, and from schools, religions, culture and other aspects of societies.”[iv]
This is also found by a handful of researchers working with children affected by violence and war who are trying to learn more about what protects them and promotes resilience. Protective processes that contribute to positive outcomes in children and youth are those associated with the individual, caregivers, family, peer and social group, school, community and cultural and political belief systems.[v] This phenomenon is aptly named “ordinary magic.”[vi]
The heart and soul of my new research and forthcoming book is the study of “ordinary magic” in the lives of children and youth affected by violence and war. In this blog series, we will meet young people affected by violence and war from Afghanistan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Brazil, Colombia, Ethiopia, Iraq, Nepal, Palestine, South Sudan, Uganda, the United Kingdom, and Vietnam, among others. Many of the stories I share, and the insights that I draw from them, I collected over two decades carrying out research with young people living through armed conflict.
My work is grounded in the belief that children and youth’s voices, perspectives, actions, and ideas are important and should be heard. But we need to remember, they are much more than their suffering and attempts to repair their broken souls, as shown so starkly by New York Times Magazine photo-essay, “How Does the Human Soul Survive Atrocity?” In fact, I argue, their stories may surprise us, causing us to think and act differently. Through their voices we learn about these young people, their families and friends, and the context in which they live and grow. We hear what they prioritize and how they strategize to meet their priorities. We discover what they actually do to try and protect themselves, their families and their communities from violence and harm. We begin to understand what helps them to cope, mature and thrive. We explore their goals, hopes, and plans for a better life. We see their attempts, often against great odds, to create a better future.
[i] At the launching of an international effort to promote best practices on preventing and rehabilitating child soldiers (The Paris Principles and Guidelines for Children Associated with Armed Forces or Armed Groups, 2008), much to the horror of those of us who had worked with child soldiers, the French Minister of Europe and Foreign Affairs described child soldiers as “ticking time bombs”, a terrible label that was picked up and repeated in media coverage world-wide.
[ii] One example of how psychologists define resilience is as “Positive adaptation in the context of significant challenges, variously referring to the capacity for, processes of, or outcomes of successful life-course development during or following exposure to potentially life-altering experiences,”, in Ann Masten, Ann S., J.J. Cutuli, Janette Herbers, and Marie-Gabrielle Reed, “Resilience in Development,” The Oxford Handbook of Postive Psychology, Second Edition, edited by Shane Lopez and C.R. Synder, Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 117–132, p. 119.
[iv] Ann Masten, Ann S., J.J. Cutuli, Janette Herbers, and Marie-Gabrielle Reed. (2009). “Resilience in Development.” In The Oxford Handbook of Postive Psychology, Second Edition, edited by Shane Lopez and C.R. Synder, Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 117–132, p. 129, emphasis in original.
[v] T.S. Betancourt and K.T. Khan. (2008). The Mental Health of Children Affected by Armed Conflict: Protective Processes and Pathways to Resilience. International Review of Psychiatry, 20, 317–32; Neil Boothby, Alison Strang and Michael Wessells. (2006). A World Turned Upside Down: Social Ecological Approaches to Children in War Zones (Kumarian Press, Bloomfield, CT).
[vi] Ann Masten, 2001, “Ordinary Magic: Resilience Processes in Development,” American Psychologist, 56(3), 227-238.
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