Children, Youth and Environments
Vol 13, No.1 (Spring 2003)
ISSN 1546-2250

Children under Fire: Challenging Assumptions about Children’s Resilience1

Jo Boyden
Oxford University

Citation: Boyden, Jo. “Children under Fire: Challenging Assumptions about Children’s Resilience.” Children, Youth and Environments 13(1), Spring 2003. Retrieved [date] from


This article examines perceptions of childhood and child development and theories of human responses to adversity that have arisen within the social and medical sciences and highlights their influence on policy and practice in the context of armed conflict. It highlights how the idea of childhood as a decontextualized and universal life phase characterized by dependence and vulnerability interacts with and is reinforced by a view of war-survivors as traumatized individuals, victims in need of remedial care. It argues for a paradigmatic shift towards understanding childhood as a highly diverse life phase shaped not simply by biological or psychological universals but also, and more importantly, by personal and environmental factors. This paradigmatic shift involves thinking about children as agents of their own development who, even during times of great adversity, consciously act upon and influence the environments in which they live.

Keywords: children’s resilience; children and war; paradigms of childhood

The protection and support of children confronting adversity has now become one of the central priorities of childhood interventions internationally. Advocacy for child war victims, children in hazardous work, abused children and those variously exploited or handicapped has attracted the attention and commitment of legislators, policy-makers, rights activists and practitioners throughout the world, especially since the acceptance and near universal ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Undoubtedly this emphasis is appropriate: most of us accept that children exposed to such misfortunes merit the best support the world has to offer. However, the protection of children is an uncertain business, with outcomes that are not always positive and cannot always be predicted. Sometimes shortcomings in implementation are due to poor management or lack of resources, but very often the problem is an erroneous conceptualization of children and childhood due to inadequate empirical data and weak theory.

Given the shortage of systematic research and theory in many key childhood issues, policies affecting children living in highly stressful situations have, by default, become heavily dependent on studies and normative ideas relating to children in North America and Europe. The global influence of western models and understandings is evident, but their applicability and utility across cultures and social contexts is highly questionable.

Discussing the influence of research on interventions for children affected by armed conflict, I argue that effective policy requires sound theories and sound empirical data if it is to benefit children. I begin by briefly exploring some of the ideas and assumptions underlying conventional scholarship on childhood and child development and considering how these have shaped policy and practice. I maintain that the dominant idea of childhood as a universalized and (paradoxically) very individualized construct that is built on notions of vulnerability and incompetence has led to interventions that, unintentionally, undermine children’s resilience and denigrate their coping efforts. I assess the implications of an alternative theoretical outlook for a revised view of children and for emergency interventions that show greater respect for children’s agency. I begin by suggesting that policies relating to children affected by armed conflict have long been influenced - whether directly or indirectly - by two separate strands of research, with important implications for the kinds of interventions devised.

Conceptualizing Childhood

The first strand of research consists of an extensive literature in several disciplines on the nature of children, childhood and child development. Essentially, this literature has tended to emphasize that childhood is a natural, distinct phase in the human life cycle, extending from birth through, and increasingly beyond, adolescence.2 The understanding is that this life phase has its own dynamics, interests and rights. In other words, as immature persons in the process of development, children are thought to have different abilities from adults, as well as special emotional, physical, psychological and social needs. Hence, in contrast to adults, children are variously cast as pre-logical, pure and “natural” beings, innocent of the ways of the world and incompetent in it (Freeman 1983, 7; Hockey and James 1993).

These notions of childhood originated in the Romantic and Reform movements in Europe (Cunningham 1991 and 1993) and received their most concrete expression in the region in the aftermath of the industrial revolution, when they began to radically transform the social integration and treatment of children. They were endorsed and institutionalized in the twentieth century by Western research and practice in eugenics, pedagogy, child psychology and child guidance (Weindling 1994; Woodhead 1998 and 1999; Nsamenang and Dawes 1998). In the modern era this kind of thinking is explicit in the existence of an international convention dedicated exclusively to children and their rights and in the “child focused” policies and practice of numerous aid and welfare agencies globally.3

Within this framework, the broadly accepted scientific wisdom has been that age and developmental stage are the most crucial indicators of children’s responses to environmental adversity. This is the core thesis of a body of developmental psychologists, influenced by the work of Jean Piaget, whose ideas have dominated international policy for many years. Other scholars who have viewed things rather differently have generally had far less impact on childhood policies globally. Although Piaget's theory of child development was highly complex and his structural model was only one facet of this thinking, his interpreters and followers have tended to emphasize one aspect in particular, that child development is governed by universal psychological and biological structures and marked by fixed stages.4 It is suggested that each stage of development embodies certain defining features and developmental expectations and builds on the accomplishments of the previous stage. Development during childhood is also seen to define psychological states and adaptiveness in adulthood. Adherents of stage theory (especially Piaget) certainly acknowledge the formative role children play in their own development. However, the thrust of scholarship with children exposed to armed conflict and other such environmental adversities has been the identification of universal traits and responses in accordance with stage-related biological and psychological development.5

Another feature of child development research has been its emphasis on early childhood, identified as a critical period of accelerated growth and change and as central to successful adaptation in later life. The emphasis on the first years of life has reinforced notions about children as vulnerable, immature and dependent and has also resulted in a shortage of systematic information on development during middle and late childhood. This bias towards early childhood in turn fuels the idea that children require continuous nurturing and protection by adults in order to flourish. At the same time, developmental psychology has often stressed a safe, stable family environment- one in which the young are protected from upset and receive love, stimulation and continuous nurture- as an essential prerequisite for children's well-being and normal development.

Out of this paradigm of vulnerability and dependence emerges the conviction that a “proper” childhood involves being reared by parents within a secure domestic setting and secluded from the dangers of the adult world (Jenks 1996; Boyden 1997). In order to secure these conditions, children are to be kept as much as possible within the home and school, distant from the workplace and from hardship and misfortune. In effect, according to this conceptualization, childhood should be a time free of social and economic responsibility, and marked by learning and play; upon these conditions children's happiness and fulfillment are seen to depend. Such a view has profound emotional appeal since it invokes an idealized situation that many parents aspire to achieve for their children. However, this view rests on certain assumptions about children’s needs and competencies and about the impact of environmental stressors on their development and wellbeing. These assumptions are examined further below.

Understanding Human Responses to Adversity

The second strand of research underlying emergency interventions deals with the nature of human responses to highly stressful situations and events. Research into human suffering in the context of major societal catastrophes commonly adopts a view of the world long promoted by the social sciences as a safe, predictable and nurturing place. Anthropology, in particular, has advanced numerous theories about the homogeneity and continuity of culture and symmetry, reciprocity and exchange in social relations. Society is portrayed as an integrated, self-equilibrating system in which armed conflict and other such circumstances are exceptions that lie outside the range of normal human experience (Allen 1989; Boyden 1994; Davis 1992; Le Vine 1999). The idea that war represents a disjunction with everyday reality and everyday processes has in effect undermined explanations about social causes of, or solutions to, armed conflict. Consequently, in the absence of proper theories of societal transformation, policy and practice commonly prioritize the functioning of affected populations over and above resolution of broader social structural problems.

Following this tradition of focusing on the survivor of war as opposed to the social formations that gave rise to it, emergency interventions with children exposed to armed conflict have tended to reflect the pre-eminence awarded to the bio-medical model in theories of human suffering. Biomedicine also concentrates on the functioning of those affected; in this case the individual human being, perceived as a universalized victim of a specific traumatic experience and bearing a disorder as a consequence of that experience (Le Vine 1999). In the biomedical model the origin of illness and disease is held to be in the physically bounded body, which is understood to function as the receptacle of the mind. Hence, physical and mental health are separated and illness is thought to reside either in the body or the mind. Aid interventions with children in war zones have been particularly influenced by psychiatric and psychological research and therapeutic work conducted in Europe during and in the aftermath of the Second World War and more recently by investigations undertaken in the United States with veterans of the Vietnam War. The central goal of this research has been to highlight the disastrous effects of armed conflict on the young.

Children’s responses have been explained largely through a mix of stage, cognitive, psycho-dynamic and attachment theories (Le Vine 1999; Bracken 1998). Often, a fairly mechanical relationship is posited between exposure to environmental adversities and mental health disturbance. Attention has centered increasingly on one particular psychiatric category, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).6 Despite its profoundly cultural origin, many claim this to be the condition that most effectively characterizes and embodies the global human response to major traumatic events (Kinzie et al. 1986; Magwaza et al. 1993; Nader and Pynoos 1993). Assessments of children exposed to armed conflict often show significant pathology and very high rates of prevalence of PTSD in particular. Moreover, since early behaviors and experiences are taken to influence subsequent developmental achievements, children exposed to stressful war events are thought to be prone not merely to traumatic reactions in both the shorter and medium term, but also to long-term developmental impairment.

Undoubtedly war is one of the most destructive of environmental forces known to humankind and no child should have to undergo such an experience. Certainly some young people are overwhelmed emotionally and psychologically by exposure to highly stressful situations and events: such children definitely should be given full support and assistance whenever possible. Given the highly pernicious nature of armed conflict, it may seem self-evident that the dominant research focus on the psychopathological impacts on children is the most appropriate. But there are many difficulties with orthodox research in this field. For example, several critics have questioned the validity of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as an interpretative model due to specific cultural and historical origin and conception. Similarly, research that focuses on psychopathology tends to omit important environmental and relational dimensions of young people’s wellbeing and development. In as much as this literature informs policy and practice, it affects children’s lives directly. Hence, it may prove useful at this point to highlight some of the ways in which such research, together with the scholarship on childhood and child development mentioned above, have shaped aid interventions in areas affected by armed conflict.

The Influence of Research on Practice

Research on war affected children has had many consequences in terms of policy and practice: some positive, others less so; some subtle and indirect, others more obvious. Here, I highlight a few of the most significant consequences.

First, the sheer volume of research on the psycho-emotional effects of conflict has led to recent a shift in priority away from physical and towards mental health interventions. For a long time physical health, especially nutrition, water, sanitation, immunization and other basic survival needs, received overall priority and psychological and emotional wellbeing was of secondary importance. However, more recent conflicts (especially in Rwanda, Bosnia and Kosovo) have produced a rather different programmatic response, in which psychosocial interventions constitute a significant proportion of the total aid package.

Second, the idea that continuity, stability, predictability and security are essential for children's well-being and healthy development has led to an expectation that armed conflict and other major societal adversities will have heightened potential to overwhelm children emotionally and psychologically. Hence a programmatic focus on the treatment, rehabilitation and social reintegration of affected populations, particular priority being given to groups that are considered to be at special risk, such as former child combatants and children who are separated from their families.

Third, the understanding that children are dependent and of limited competence and that they are almost inevitably overcome by massive environmental adversities like war has fostered a view of those children who are exposed to conflict as helpless and traumatized, dependent on adults for their salvation and protection. Children are thus treated as passive victims of conflict, as opposed to competent survivors, with the effect that they are largely excluded from plans and decisions concerning them (Bracken and Petty 1998).

Fourth, orthodox perspectives on the universality of child development and of the human psyche more generally have served to legitimate the notion that children's responses to catastrophic events observe uniform patterns. Such universalistic explanations coexist with, and are to some extent reinforced by, a medicalized view that stresses individual pathology over structural forces. Hence, the individual as victim and patient has been the main focus and the universalizing theories and practices of modern medicine have been privileged over indigenous healing approaches that are regarded as having little credibility and efficacy. Social, cultural and economic matters are regarded as beyond the reach of emergency programs, the stuff of longer-term development interventions mounted following the cessation of conflict and during times of peace.

Fifth, an assumption is made that children's needs are best served within the context of the family, which is thought to automatically offer greater stability, support and protection for children than they can themselves provide through their own energy and initiative. Such views may have considerable validity in many cases. Nevertheless, they are seldom backed by sound contextualized information on child rearing and care practices and family structure and reflect a lack of familiarity with children's own coping strategies during periods of adversity. In some cases they have led to interventions built on culturally inappropriate concepts of child and family that undermine rather than reinforce children’s wellbeing (Mann 2001).

A number of aid agencies have sought to employ rather different ideas in their interventions with war-affected children, building on very different understandings of children and child development. Such agencies have moved away from psychosocial interventions at an individual level and run programs, especially in post-conflict settings, that focus on social reconstruction, social reconciliation and healing. Working with families and communities in an effort to restore social structures and a sense of normality, they highlight the social ecologies of childhood as opposed to individual pathology. This variously entails reinstating community services and structures, rebuilding family and community networks, re-establishing productive capacity, developing mechanisms for justice and retribution and other such interventions.

These approaches promise greater sustainability in poor countries and closer social and cultural adaptation than individual therapy. Nevertheless, they are sometimes criticized because of the apparent imprecision of their methodologies and the lack of firm, quantified evidence of impact. Further, they often exist in an information vacuum in which ethnographic research on and knowledge about pre-conflict society and culture is absent. This commonly leads to stereotyped notions about social norms, values, dynamics and power structures. When applied to interventions, use of such stereotypes can undermine rather than reinforce social reconstruction and healing. This suggests a need for far greater contextualization of programs and far greater attention to ethnographic research during and following conflict. It also suggests the need to pay greater attention to existing social science research with children, most of which has been developed in contexts other than that of armed conflict.

The Diversity of Childhood

There exist several literatures in the social sciences that provide alternative theories of childhood and child development and alternative ways of conceptualizing human responses to environmental adversities like war. These literatures merit some consideration for they appear more promising than conventional perspectives insofar as they offer more plausible explanations of how children engage with armed conflict and are affected by it.

The biomedical paradigm tends to yield an almost unitary representation of conflict that is bound neither by time nor context; a given percentage of children are exposed to given range of experiences, with certain physical or mental consequences that can be pre-defined according to a fixed model of psychopathology. However, the proposition that children's development and wellbeing is determined wholly or even largely by universal conditions and structures has received serious interrogation in the social sciences. Undoubtedly some aspects of childhood are universal. For instance, all healthy children gain in strength and stature as they grow to puberty. Certain physical needs (food, fluids, rest and sleep) in particular are indispensable. Further, certain cognitive processes are sequenced according to underlying neurological development. There are, in addition, commonalities in the acquisition of language and in the way biology and culture interact in the development of children. Also, it should in theory at least be possible to define the broad boundaries beyond which childhood environments are likely to have pathological consequences, by any standards, in terms of stunted growth, emotional disturbance, social isolation, and learning disability (Woodhead 1998, 8). Finally, the physiological experience of suffering undoubtedly has universal characteristics, for human beings have a limited repertoire of responses to catastrophic experiences and a number of responses recur across cultures (Parker 1996, 20).

Nevertheless, assertions of universality definitely have their limits. Scientific studies that claim to have discovered a general condition of childhood belie the ethnographic evidence that childhood is an extremely diverse life phase and ignore the fact that the globalized image of childhood they project is in many respects a normative one. In practice, childhood is not a fixed state bound by predetermined developmental stages, but a diverse, shifting category that follows certain biological sequences, and responds to the cultural and social environment, genetic heritage, personal agency and economic and political circumstance. Social constructions of childhood are extremely variable and context-specific. For example, in Bangladesh an individual who goes to school and has no economic or social responsibilities may be termed a “child” (shishu) up to the age of puberty, whereas a boy or girl who works will no longer be referred to as shishu even at age six (Blanchet 1996). Such distinctions radically affect the way children experience childhood. Thus, in many contexts gender differentiation brings childhood to an end for girls far sooner than for boys. In some settings childhood is a contested category. Hence, during the various apartheid regimes in South Africa, young political activists were defined by the authorities as “youth” to establish their legal culpability, while the activists referred to themselves as “children” in order to avoid adult penalties (Comaroff 2000).

One of the most interesting aspects of research with children conducted within the last few decades is that the search for common patterns of growth, development and socialization has led to an increasing appreciation of differences. It is now widely accepted in the scientific community that cognitive capacity and growth is not unitary, and that children have multiple and varied intelligences that are not merely a function of their age and stage of development (Gardner 1983). Biology and culture, working together, generate both differences and commonalities of human development. There are genetic influences for diversity just as there are genetic bases for human similarity, both of which are necessary and both of which mesh with culture to ensure the survival of the species (Wilson 1998). At the present time, genetic research emphasizes that individual children achieve the ability to perform various tasks at very different rates according to their genetic make up, and that shared features of the gene pool account for developmental variation as well as similarity.

Hence, the idea that a direct and observable link exists between exposure to highly stressful experiences and psychiatric disorders, or psychological disruption is increasingly challenged (Dawes 1990; Gibson 1993). In this critique the mediated nature of human experience is highlighted and the developmental and the mental health outcomes of exposure to armed violence and other adversities are argued as being extremely dynamic and unpredictable. Even in situations of severe adversity that have heightened potential to undermine mental health, children’s development and wellbeing remain heavily influenced by a broad array of forces. For example, there is some evidence that children who try actively to overcome adversity- by attempting to resolve the problems they face, regulate their emotions, protect their self-esteem and manage their social interactions- are likely to be more resilient than children who accept their fate passively, especially in the long run (Cairns 1996; Beristain et al. 1996; Garbarino 1999). The ability to think critically facilitates the identification of valid alternatives and solutions to difficulties, thereby enhancing coping. This ability also helps shield children from simplistic interpretations of experience that can be self-defeating and socially destructive in the long term (Garbarino et al. 1991).

Certainly it is important to recognize the practical implications of variation in the patterns of children's native abilities. However, research suggests that it is the social aspect of child development that most merits the attention of policy makers, for genetic attributes interact with and are molded by environmental challenges and opportunities to form the actual competencies children develop. Researchers have been examining the ways in which society functions as an indispensable element in the growth of the human mind from the very first days of life onward. Piaget, probing children's inborn capacities and development patterns, recognized that caretaker relationships and other environmental factors are of great importance to children's physical and mental growth. But this was not the strongest feature of his work. The modern progenitor of this perspective was Lev Vygotsky, who called attention to the essential role of culture as part and parcel of children's cognitive development.

Vygotsky argued that there is no essential separation between the individual and the social, for one cannot become an individual without becoming social. Even the most primary aspects of a child's development are social, in that social experience has an active, structuring effect in child development (Wood 1998, 17; Cole 1992). The social construction of human experience has now become accepted by many as the most powerful source of differentiation between children globally in terms of behavior, thinking, adaptation and indeed, responses to armed conflict (Dawes and Donald 1994; Dawes 2000; Durkin 1998; Lave 1988; Harkness and Super 1996; Serpell 1996; Woodhead 1999). In particular, the objectives of child development, the skills in children that are valued and the ways in which their training is organized are all regarded as contributing fundamentally to the competencies that children in any specific context acquire. Given this kind of diversity, the tendency of policy and practice to decontextualize childhood and treat children generically as a mass of victims is highly problematic.

Social Prescriptions of Vulnerability and Resilience

As the Bangladeshi example shows, it is not just across, but also within, cultural contexts that childhood diversity is manifested. Recognizing power and status differences within childhood is essential for understanding why some children are in peril during armed conflict when others are not and also why children in different categories may learn different coping techniques and susceptibilities. Most societies make important distinctions between children in different social groups, with the effect that gender, class, ethnicity and other factors of difference play a significant part in shaping childhood experience. Many, if not most, children are jeopardized not merely through chance but because of who they are in terms of how they are valued and treated by their families and communities. This leads to important discrepancies among children in different groups with regard to their safety and resilience during periods of conflict. In fact, armed conflict often accentuates differences between children in the extent and nature of risk, placing new or increased demands, as well as removing pre-existent protective mechanisms, on those children who have less power or less social value.

The relationship between social power, exposure to misfortune, and resilience and vulnerability during childhood is critical and needs to be taken fully into account in the development of effective emergency interventions. With regard to susceptibility to hazards, family survival strategies in war zones often single out children in particular status groups as expendable, whether through abandonment, sale, or militarization. Such children are commonly expelled from the home to reduce the economic burden on the family, generate income, or create political alliances that are critical for economic or physical security. For example, in Burma's Shan State, an area exposed to decades of warfare, the eldest member of either sex in the sibling group was found to be at greatest risk of harm, although gendered risks have very different causes (Boyden 1991). Many families would aim to place an elder son in the military as a safeguard for the family as a whole against extortion, rape, intimidation or theft. Hence, eldest sons were often militarized and exposed to intense violence. Younger sons would be sent to the monastery, where they were housed, fed, clothed and protected from conscription. Teenage daughters would be either kept at home, where they replaced the labor of absent males and were liable also to fulfill the household's forced labor obligations - work that was both arduous and dangerous - or sold to traffickers who traded them into prostitution in Thailand.

Turning to children’s responses to adversity, longitudinal studies of risk and resilience (for example, Werner and Smith 1992 and 1998) have emphasized the importance of gender in particular. Several studies of children affected by armed conflict indicate that at least up to the age of puberty, boys may be more likely than girls to be at risk when exposed to a range of stressors (Cairns 1996). Dawes et al. (1989), though, reveal a more subtle pattern, in which gendered responses to suffering change with age: boys in the youngest age group in this study have more symptomatic behavior than girls; the levels appear very similar during middle childhood and girls present more symptoms by adolescence. To the extent that children may be protected by adopting active survival strategies, boys may be more resilient than girls in many settings, simply because society offers them more independence training and more encouragement and opportunities to take active control of their lives.

Even though some studies on the topic exist, social power within childhood is generally given insufficient attention in research and interventions with populations affected by conflict. Ed Cairns (1996) has assessed the literature from this point of view. He observes that research in this area is neither very strong nor particularly conclusive, seldom disaggregating between children on the basis of age, ethnicity, class or religion, although on the whole treating gender more adequately.7 Effort is needed to combat this oversight if practitioners are to be able to better understand risk and resilience among children and prioritize those who are most vulnerable.

Social Meanings of Suffering

I have argued that most of the research and practical interventions concerning children’s experiences of and responses to conflict adhere to biomedical and other positivist frameworks. Such frameworks are especially insensitive to the subjective interpretation of human experience. By de-contextualizing and privileging the individual as representing the psychic unity of humanity, society and culture are regarded as mere variables in human development, adaptation and healing, rather than as foundational in these processes (Lock and Scheper-Hughes 1990, 53; Parker 1996; Le Vine 1999; Ahearn and Athley 1999). Patrick Bracken (1998) has highlighted such shortcomings in trauma research. He disputes the notion that the meaningful nature of reality is something “conferred” on it by the schemata running in individual minds and that trauma disrupts the meaning of the world through its impact on these schemata. He argues (pp. 49-50) that meanings are fundamentally a product of the public realm of language and practice, much of which simply cannot be understood by allusion to universal theoretical schema. There may be a limited repertoire of human responses to crisis determined by the generalized psychic make up of humankind. But adjustment to adversity, suffering, grief and loss are all experienced in context and are patterned by the cultural meanings they manifest. So, while healing and similar processes may be experienced in ways that are intensely personal, individuals understand and engage with misfortune through mechanisms that are socially mediated (White 1998, also citing to Kleinman and Kleinman 1991; Bracken 1998).

Most societies have their own approaches to the management of adversity and to healing, depending on their concepts of causality in misfortune, of well-being, power, personhood and social identity (Hinton 2000; Schweder and Bourne 1982; Parker 1996; Le Vine 1999; Bracken 1998; Summerfield 1991 and 1998; Bit 1991). These notions are not necessarily fixed or agreed by all members of the community, but nevertheless, do tend to structure the way people experience and are affected by environmental stresses. Therefore, even while children’s responses may not always be the same as adults’, such responses cannot be understood without reference to the social, cultural and moral contexts they inhabit.

It follows that an operational focus on individual concerns and the separation of mental and physical functioning is not appropriate in all societies. This is especially true of those societies familiar with more holistic health systems. The synergy of mind and body and congruence of the human, natural and spiritual worlds are pivotal to the experience of suffering in many parts of the world. Since the body, mind and self are not logically distinguished in many settings illness or suffering cannot be conceived of as being situated in body or mind alone (Scheper-Hughes and Lock 1989). In such systems, sickness is caused often by the intervention of powerful “others” - social, natural and supernatural agents - rather than individual pathology:

Social relations are ... understood as key contributors to individual health and illness. In short, the body is seen as a unitary, integrated aspect of self and social relations. It is dependent on, and vulnerable to, the feelings, wishes, and actions of others, including spirits and dead ancestors. The body is not understood as a vast complex machine, but rather as a microcosm of the universe (Scheper-Hughes and Lock 1989, 21).

Hence, disease or poor individual functioning is often portrayed as being caused by the witchcraft of neighbors or relatives, by malevolent ancestors, or by the forces of nature, spirits or deities.

As with other philosophies and theories, biomedicine assumes that it objectively describes reality and that this reality is valid everywhere. But discrepancies between the meanings given to adversity and suffering in this model and other medical systems raise major concerns about the validity of applying northern therapeutic methods in emergency interventions globally, as several writers have observed (Bracken and Petty 1998; Parker 1996; Perren-Klingler 1996). Such discrepancies have led some communities, for example Bhutanese refugees in Nepal (Hinton 2000, 6), whose ideology denies the centrality of the self, to reject modern treatments and interventions. Where cultural axioms are less fixed, health-seeking patterns may involve negotiation between alternative therapeutic models and systems. In Cambodia, for example, the preferred treatment is normally that which is provided by traditional healers, the kruu Khmer. But many Khmer found that traditional healers could not provide an adequate explanation of the horrific violence of the Pol Pot era and so would also consult practitioners trained in the bio-medical tradition (Boyden and Gibbs 1997). As biomedicine is “increasingly being understood as one of many medicines ... culturally and historically distinct, specific and far from universal” (Gordon 1988, 20), so northern medical therapies are coming under closer scrutiny in emergency contexts and efforts are being made to integrate alternative philosophies and approaches.

Children's Agency and Resilience in Situations of Adversity
Biomedicine is only one of the operational models coming under scrutiny in emergency contexts internationally. There now exists a body of research that questions orthodox ideas about children as helpless victims in the face of misfortune and the world as a safe, predictable and peaceful place. As far back as the late 1920s, John Dewey (Reynolds-White 1998) depicted the human condition as inherently precarious and perilous, embodying uncertainty, ambiguity and contingency rather than homogeneity and equilibrium. More recently, others have stressed that armed conflict is continuous with normal social experience and is not necessarily the harbinger of social breakdown and chaos (Davis 1992; Duffield 1990).

Some doubt has even been cast on whether children, in order to flourish, really do need enduring security and stability in their social milieu. This is not to advocate that they should be exposed to adversity, but to question whether children are inherently vulnerable and whether wars and similar adverse environmental forces are invariably bad for them. Infants and young children are inevitably quite dependent on the resourcefulness of elder siblings and adults for their care and safety. Some older children too may lack the competence, ingenuity and resilience to deal with difficult situations, especially if they have been exposed to multiple stressors, suffer low self-esteem or have experienced humiliation, rejection or abuse. But to generalize about middle childhood and adolescence from the uncontroversial facts of dependence and immaturity in the first years of life is to ignore the resourcefulness of many children in all age groups and the social competencies of those beyond early childhood in particular.

Research has provided new understanding of how cultural values are assembled and sustained by societies, and new insights into how children perceive and process discontinuities, inconsistencies, and outright conflicts in their environment. Ideas emphasizing the value of stability in the development and wellbeing of children have given way to a far more dynamic view, which emphasizes the active, constructive nature of human development and the dynamic nature of culture. Engagement with their environment involves children interpreting the world about them, making choices, defining their own roles and identities, managing crises, reaching decisions and working collaboratively with others (Punch 1998; Baker 1998; James et al. 1998; Mayall 1994; Hutchby and Moran-Ellis 1998; Waksler 1994 and 1996).

Studies indicating the dynamic, interactive nature of child development and highlighting children’s coping in adverse settings challenge the assumption that all, or even most, children are helpless in the face of turbulence and strife (Summerfield 1998). In general, it turns out that children have considerable inner resources for coping with contradiction and that fears of permanent psychological stunting by change, confusion and misfortune may be somewhat overblown. "Through interacting with our ambiguous and troublesome surroundings we refine our abilities to imagine, plan, control" (Diggins 1994, 223, quoted in White 1998). Several researchers have found, for example, that a significant proportion of children exposed to difficulties within their families and communities remain resilient (Werner and Smith 1992 and 1998; Cairns 1996), although emphasizing that the experience of multiple stressors is likely to have a cumulative effect which ultimately may overwhelm coping capacity. Others (Ressler et al. 1992, 39) observe that well-adjusted, well-cared for children are seldom suddenly overcome by a single traumatic experience. Several highlight that growing up in the context of constant change and contradiction can for some children be a source of strength (Turton et al. 1990, 78; Dawes and Donald 1994; Zwi et al. 1992; Werner 2000).

A few studies even suggest that in certain situations some children may be better able to accommodate dissonance and change than adults (Palmer 1983). Rachel Hinton (2000) found that in Bhutanese refugee camps in Nepal, children were particularly adept at adjusting to crisis and, through their conscious care-giving strategies, were able to have considerable positive impact on the psychological and emotional worlds of adults. She cites the example of children who, well beyond normal weaning age, resumed breastfeeding in order to restore in their mothers a sense of purposefulness and self-worth. A few of the children were able to describe this as a conscious strategy. Arati, a girl of thirteen, for example, remarked: "Sometimes I play at being a child, I am grown up now but my mother likes to have babies and it makes her happy when I sit on her lap and she gives [spoon feeds] me food" (Hinton 2000, 17). Indeed, there is considerable anecdotal evidence that in situations of adversity, boys and girls often bear the prime responsibilities within the family, as careers of incapacitated adults or younger siblings, prime earners of family income and so on.

Clearly such insights have major implications for the way the relief community conceptualizes and supports children during armed conflict. Arguing that many children are resourceful in difficult situations definitely does not imply that children should be expected to tolerate adversity, or that a violent environment is propitious for children. However, it does bring into question the inevitability of catastrophic effects on children in such circumstances. It also brings to the fore the importance of acknowledging children's own coping efforts and their contributions to family maintenance, protection and survival.

Societal Approaches to Risk Management

The notion that children's well-being is best safeguarded by separation from the trials and tribulations of the adult world is cultural. It may even in some cases have the practical effect of undermining children's resilience and coping in the context of adversity. Children cannot always rely on the support and nurture of adults during war and they must therefore learn their own strategies for integrating their experiences, overcoming feelings of helplessness, fear, grief and loss and coping in general (Perren-Klingler 1996). Children are generally perceived as having fewer survival strategies available to them than adults, and this is understood to be a source of vulnerability. In practice, however, the reverse often applies and children commonly have far more options open to them than do adults, simply because societies tend to be less prescriptive about children's tasks and roles. Adults generally pay little attention to children, for example, and this can make it possible for them to undertake tasks that adults are barred from, such as foraging and scavenging in areas controlled by security forces.

But it is not simply a matter of opportunity, for children's ability to cope with misfortune is likely to be influenced by any training they may have received in risk management. Perceptions of hazards and approaches to dealing with them are relative to culture and it is probable that different approaches to child rearing will have different outcomes in terms of the ability of an individual to overcome adversity. While some societies, especially in the industrialized world, seek to protect children by isolating them from sources of risk, elsewhere learning to protect oneself is commonly regarded as more conducive to children's development. Often these child protection strategies are highly gendered.

In many societies children (especially boys) are encouraged to take part in activities that develop physical strength, endurance, confidence, dexterity and self-discipline. Inuit children in Canada, for example, are taught to cope with a dangerous and often unpredictable Arctic environment, continuously tested in all spheres of knowledge and competence relating to the world around them and expected to experiment with uncertainty and danger (Briggs 1986, 8). They learn that the world is made up of problems to be solved, and the ability to discover those problems, to observe them actively and accurately, and to analyze the implications of exposure to hazardous situations is highly valued. Similarly, Rousseau et al. (1998) found that Somali boys forced into exile as unaccompanied minors were far more resilient than might have been expected. This was attributed to the traditional nomadic pastoral practice of sending young boys away to tend herds. The long periods of separation from their families and communities enabled these boys to learn self-sufficiency and autonomy and confirmed their right to be acknowledged and accepted as adults.

Several researchers have established that child rearing which stresses self-assurance and independence and gives children some experience of responsibility at an early age, such as sibling care taking and income generation, promotes well-being, self-efficacy and social skills (Fromm and Maccoby 1970; Whiting and Whiting 1975; Aptekar 1989). Such observations fit broadly with the studies mentioned above that find the most resilient children in conflict zones are those who actively and creatively engage with their situation and adopt constructive approaches to the management of risk. Indeed, staying alive- and sometimes even flourishing- during warfare can involve extraordinary ingenuity. In Cambodia during the Pol Pot era it often meant feigning a fictitious personality; pretending to be deaf, dumb, confused or foolish - for people who were “smart” risked detention, torture or execution (Boyden and Gibbs 1997).

There is a Cambodian saying, learned in Pol Pot times: 'plant the Kapok tree'. It is a play on the words, dem kor. The allusion is to deaf mute. The meaning is that you will get further if you pretend to know nothing, hear nothing, say nothing (Meas with Healy 1995, 30).

Some children even make choices about their own care. Unaccompanied children who had been evacuated from Peru's Ayacucho region, the heart of insurgent territory, chose to live independently in child headed households and earn their income on the streets rather than avail themselves of local relief facilities. The latter would have entailed registration and therefore identification as Ayacuchanos which the children judged too dangerous because it carried the risk of reprisals. Similarly, street boys in Uganda who were living in army camps refused to leave when given the option by the government relief department, for the soldiers provided them with food, clothing, companionship and other benefits they had not known previously and did not expect to receive on demobilization.

Sometimes relief interventions become an integral part of children's coping strategies, but not necessarily in ways imagined or intended by relief agencies.8 The evidence that children have personal agency and use it during conflict in a multitude of constructive and ingenious ways challenges the validity and effectiveness of emergency interventions that treat children generically as a mass of passive and helpless victims of adversity. It shows that children often try to overcome the problems they face and therefore suggests that they may be better served by assuming, whenever possible, a constructive role in their own protection and at least some degree of responsibility for their own safety.

The Validity of Children’s Testimonies

Interpretations of children as weak and incompetent tend to justify research based on adult opinions about children and policies and interventions that treat children as the objects of adult decisions, rather than social subjects with valid insights and perspectives of their own. In this way, psychosocial assessments of children often rely on adults' views rather than children's own perspectives. Typically, adult careers, teachers or others are asked to complete questionnaires quantifying children's exposure to traumatic experiences, such as violence, or separation from or loss of significant others, and/or gauging children’s responses by mapping “pathological” behaviors and symptoms (Ahearn and Athey 1995; Gibbs and Boyden 1995).

Some might justify resorting to adult knowledge and insight on the grounds that children may be too traumatized to speak about what they have endured, too inarticulate to express their true feelings, or give views that appear inconsistent with their experience. Sometimes the concern is that children may not tell the truth. Certainly it is vital to ensure that children are not harmed by intrusive interviews or measures intended to assist them. Undoubtedly children do not always express themselves in a manner that appears consistent and logical, but then neither do adults. In fact, it turns out that adults are often poor interpreters of children's lives.9

The use of pre-coded research instruments, in itself, acts as a barrier to understanding children's responses to political violence. The more refined of these instruments involve some adaptation to ensure cultural fit. Nevertheless, they generally invoke a positivist paradigm which says more about the preconceptions of the researcher than the perspectives or actual experiences of children. Further, ideas and words used by adult researchers in such instruments may be unintelligible to the research subjects. This applies especially to child informants, who may feel obliged to give answers to please adults, even when they do not understand the question. In any case, children's own concepts, perceptions and understandings are likely to be far more pertinent than those of the researcher. Researchers may be completely unaware of events and situations that children find important, while circumstances that researchers regard as deeply disturbing may in fact be of far less concern to children. This is not to suggest that children are exotic creatures inhabiting their own universe and immune to the kinds of grief and suffering experienced by adults, but to highlight that their anxieties frequently differ from those of adults and also that adults are often ignorant of what really troubles children.

Sometimes listening to children produces surprising results. Colin McMullen (1999), for example, found that Palestinian war-affected children were not preoccupied by the kinds of individual concerns normally given prominence in psychological research but by public hygiene and other matters reflecting the collective culture in which they lived. Loss of educational and work opportunities is commonly one of the most distressing experiences for children exposed to armed conflict. Such losses remove all sense of continuity with the past and undermine children’s future integration into society. Thus, unaccompanied Sudanese boys living in Kenyan refugee camps were anxious that they were no longer able to tend their families' animals, fearing that this would mean a loss of respect in the community (Rädda Barnen 1994, 28). Sometimes it is not just loss and bereavement that cause children to be distressed, but also the way adults handle these situations. For instance, a young Bangladeshi girl who was saddened by the death of her father who was killed in the war with Pakistan was distressed as much by the fact that for two years her mother withheld this information.

Research that ignores children's perspectives is unlikely to be able to predict the impact of exposure to adversity. For example, among those children who do suffer serious or prolonged psychological or emotional distress, a significant proportion have not experienced a major misfortune but less dramatic circumstances that are more deleterious or unfulfilling than catastrophic (Ressler et al. 1992). Sometimes the most devastating situations are those involving insidious hardships and deprivations, such as constant humiliation, social isolation, or poverty related to long term unemployment. Even in terms of the physical impact of conflict, far more children succumb to secondary effects of starvation, exposure and untreated disease than to weapons.10 When researchers anticipate in advance events and circumstances that they consider highly stressful, they could miss such important subtleties.

Studies that disregard children's perspectives risk resulting in misplaced interventions that do not address children's real problems or concerns and may even pose a threat to their self-esteem and self-efficacy. For adults to understand better children's problems and needs, they require children to explain and interpret their childhoods: children must be encouraged to provide real insight into their feelings and experiences. This suggests that we adults need to temper our assumption of childhood irrationality and adult expertise with some humility. It also implies the need for new research methods and methodologies that are child-centered, and provide data that are sensitive to cultural context.


There is a long tradition in areas affected by armed conflict of interventions that are built on a universalized construction of childhood as a period of dependence and vulnerability. Children are treated as victims, removed from their social and cultural context and served with specialist measures based on centralized policies and the prior identification of need. Typically, physical and, more recently, psychological needs predominate over those that are social and economic. Medical science is the professional arena considered most appropriate to the healing of children's suffering, and social work the most effective for the social reintegration and support of children in exceptional situations, especially those separated from their families. Too often, interventions take the form of remedial treatment based on a one-to-one, case-by-case approach in which structural causes and effects are ignored.

Conceiving of childhood as decontextualized and universalized and yet at the same time also highly individualized, ignores the diversity of children's experiences of adversity and the multiplicity of their responses. Children in different societies and social categories are raised in different ways and with different expectations. They thrive, and indeed flourish, in widely contrasting conditions and circumstances and have different capacities and needs, to which a universal child protection model- which is based on only one type of childhood - is not sensitive. Understanding that the culture in which children live shapes the way they are perceived and treated, the way they experience childhood, and the actual competencies they develop is an important departure from traditional policy based on universalist values, in which the process of growing up is conceived of as the same for all children.

In most war zones, expert medical intervention is privileged in the healing of sickness and suffering over measures built on local resources, strategies and understandings. However, suffering must not be privatized within therapies for, as Perren-Klingler (1996, 9) forcefully argues, the focus on individual pathology disregards the social and political dimensions of misfortune. The shared search for meaning, the social recognition and validation of distress and common effort towards overcoming adversity and reinstating normalcy are all an essential part of integrating experience and healing in individuals. Individualized remedial treatments based on “expert” scientific skills and knowledge can pose a direct threat to such processes. If policy is to support healing and effectively it must allow different cultures to express, embody and give meaning to distress in different ways. It must be open to integrating alternative systems of health care, situating healing strategies within their social and cultural context, and using local resources whenever possible. It is also vital that social and cultural understandings be founded on systematic social and ethnographic research, using pre-conflict studies where they exist.

While it is important to acknowledge the painful, humiliating and profoundly debilitating experiences that many children suffer during periods of political violence, it has to be recognized that the dominant discourse of vulnerability, sickness, crisis and loss has the potential for seriously undermining children's wellbeing (Burman 1994; White 1998). Notions of children's passivity and susceptibility disregard the important emotional, social, economic and political contributions children make to family and community during periods of political violence, as well as trivializing their coping efforts. The perception of the child as vulnerable victim may have powerful emotional appeal for adults, but can in many circumstances be quite detrimental to children since it renders them helpless and incompetent in the face of adult decisions and actions, many of which may not be in children's best interests. It also ignores the possibility that children may have insights and opinions about solutions to their problems that could be highly appropriate and valid.

If children are to be helped to overcome highly stressful experiences, their views and perspectives need to be treated as a source of learning and strength, not weakness. It should be stressed again that arguing for a view of children as at least potentially resourceful is not to sanction their exposure to adversity, nor to deny that some children may be rendered very vulnerable. Instead, this view questions normative ideas about childhood weakness and considers whether a focus on children's susceptibilities really is the most effective way of supporting self-esteem and self-efficacy in adverse environments. The practical value of an understanding of children as resourceful is that it builds on children's strengths, rather than emphasizing their frailty and dependence on adult (often outsider) expertise, which in many settings is simply not forthcoming. Competence and acceptance are central features of wellbeing in children and adults alike, suggesting that insofar as policy purports to foster the interests of children who confront environmental adversities it should try whenever feasible to reinforce the active role of children in their family and community and in all decisions and processes affecting them.

1. I would like to express my gratitude to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which generously provided the funds that have made this article and the research that underpinned it possible. I am also grateful to Peter Loizos and Jim McKechnie for reading and commenting on early drafts. I recognize that social definitions of childhood are extremely variable and often only very loosely linked to chronological age. However, for the sake of simplicity the term “children” is here taken to denote individuals under the age of 18.
2. Since the advent of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the upper age limit for childhood is commonly accepted as 18 years.
3. For example, see the “first call for children” policy employed by UNICEF and other agencies in emergency settings (Last 1994).
4. Shahar (1992) shows how this kind of stage theory in fact has its origins in the medical works, didactic literature and moral treatises of medieval Europe.
5. Even anthropological and sociological accounts, which tend to give much greater weight to cultural and social influences in child development than to universal structures, have tended to focus on children primarily as the receivers of adult protection, socialization and training, rather than social agents in their own right (Baker 1998).
6. PTSD was first distinguished as a syndrome in American veterans of the Vietnam War and has subsequently been identified by the World Health Organization as the most severe psychiatric disorder and primary stress resulting from a catastrophe.
7. The psychiatric literature tends to be especially neglectful of power differences between children. While the psychoanalytic research does address this issue at some length (Parker 1996), it has failed to provide consistent data addressing the links with variations in children's resilience and vulnerability.
8. For example, a Cambodian girl took advantage of the “special needs” status conferred on unaccompanied children by the relief community in order to avail herself of a new identity and related benefits (Boyden and Gibbs 1997, 181). When it became apparent that the Khmer Rouge was about to arrive in their district, the six-year old girl was sent by her disabled mother to stay with her grandmother in Thailand. However, discovering there to be no school in the area, the girl later traveled to the Thai-Cambodian border, where her uncle, who was in the army, was working in a refugee camp. When she found that she could not live in the barracks with her uncle, she registered with the camp authorities as an unaccompanied minor, which enabled her to stay in the camp and receive food, clothing and education.
In order to register, the girl had to state that she had been separated from her family. Having listened to some of the other children in the camp talking about their experiences of separation and forced migration, she decided that she would pretend to be the missing sister of one of the unaccompanied boys. Building up a picture of this boy's life, she constructed her own story to fit his. At first the boy denied that she was his sister, but when the authorities interviewed the two children separately their stories concurred, and in time the girl managed to persuade both the officials and the boy that she was indeed his sister. Eventually the two were resettled together in the United States, where the girl maintained the fiction, even participating in ceremonies for their “dead” parents while silently hoping that her own mother was alive.
9. There are many reasons why adults' recollections of childhood may not adequately represent the perspective and feelings of the children they once were, not least because human resilience partly involves blotting out memories as, for example, in the grieving process.
10. The more potent military leaders have long known this, and often use psychological and economic warfare as the preferred and more effective option over physical violence. They find that tactics such as forced relocation, destruction of food supplies, continuous security checks, interrogation and the reversal of inter-generational power structures effectively destabilize communities and undermine trust and loyalty, making it far easier to manipulate and control civilian populations.

Jo Boyden trained as a social anthropologist. Her research interests include children's development, roles, resilience and coping in contexts of adversity. Dr. Boyden worked for 20 years as a social development consultant to a wide range of governmental and non-governmental aid agencies. She is currently a research officer at the University of Oxford, where she is researching the responses of children and adolescents to armed conflict and forced migration.


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