Children in war – the importance of good parenting

Main theme: Psychiatry at war

 

Parenting is a practice-oriented meaning making process that aims at securing children’s development in different phases in their life. It happens in social and cultural contexts that secures age-specific developmental resources for children and their family. “It takes a village to raise a child”, an ancient proverb says. Times of war and uprooting makes this obvious.



During pregnancy and in early infancy the capacity of the mother/caregiver to provide a secure holding and management is central for the child’s psychological and biological development. For this to happen, the caregiver also needs a holding environment secured by a family and cultural and societal surrounding that provide both psychological safety, support in caregiving practices and protection of the mother-child unit from dangers and disturbances. Later developmental stages require culturally specified circumstance as the child gradually develops the capacity to be separate and manage on their own.


The double perspective on development proposed in Erikson’s psychosocial, epigenic model (Erikson, 1950), where psychobiological development is seen in interaction with the social and cultural frame for this development is important. In adolescence, identity formation is a primary developmental task leading up to consolidation of identity in the young adult phase, where autonomy and the abilities to form intimate relationships and plan education/work are central (Erikson, 1964, Erikson, 1950, Blos, 1967). Central for identity development in all developmental phases is a sense of temporal and contextual integration, a sense of “a subjective sense of invigorating sameness and continuity” (Erikson, 1968, p. 19).


Parenting means guiding children through a biopsychosocial restructuring process, during which important biological changes produce psychical challenges to be met in a changing sociocultural context (Hauser, 1999) and what is regarded as mature or desirable – vary considerably according to the cultural traditions and circumstances. Different contexts offer more or less stable opportunities for the developing identity but war, as we see in Ukraine and other places, means radical break with expected developmental possibilities through destabilizing parent-child relationships, family cohesion and socio-cultural contexts surrounding the child.


The global number of people forcibly displaced by persecution, conflict and organized violence has reached 84 million people in 2021. Children and adolescents below 18 years of age make up about half of the worldwide refugee population (Flyktnehjelpen, 2022). With the Russian attack on Ukraine, these numbers are increasing dramatically. A growing population of children are spending their formative years in refugee camps in host countries.


Children and adolescents below 18 years of age make up about half of the worldwide refugee population. Image by Unsplash.
Children and adolescents below 18 years of age make up about half of the worldwide refugee population. Image by Unsplash.

Refugee children are in special need of sensitive and consistent caregiving that can assist in weathering the extreme stressors they face (Betancourt et al., 2015). Particularly the quality of relationships with parents, may buffer or aggravate the potential effect of the multiple risk factors facing refugee children. Refugee families’ capacity for providing a context that is sensitive to the child’s needs is subjected to extraordinary pressure. The refugee journey implies often extreme risks and possibilities for traumatization and death. Both parents and children ar at risk. Many children under 18 years old make their flight alone during the formative preadolescence and adolescent years. Normal development is the hindered which may lead to developmental disturbances (Varvin et al., 2022).


Establishing contexts sensitive to children’s’ needs and to good parenting is therefore of prime importance when receiving refugees especially in vulnerable phases. Mothers arriving with small children need from the start supporting measures that secures mothers ability to be sensitive to the child’s need. Traumatized parents can be a burden for children if not treated, which can lead to transgenerational afflictions (Johansen and Varvin, 2019). Care and intervention program must start when refugees arrive and be comprehensive and involve communal- and health-services as well as specialist services (Varvin, 2021).