News Line

    Go to Home Back
Email this to a friend
Printable version
Saturday, May 12, 2012 - 06.35 GMT
Psychosocial Problems of Child Soldiers - II

By: Prof. Daya Somasundaram & Dr. Ruwan M. Jayatunge


War in the 21st century is not only more prevalent, but more tragic. With children's involvement, warlords, terrorists, and rebel leaders alike are finding that conflicts are easier to start. A particularly troubling aspect is not only what happens during the fighting, but the legacy it leaves for children after the fighting is done. That is, recovery from traumas of war is hard enough; it's all the more difficult when the soldier in question is a child.

Sri Lanka has its share of obligations in rehabilitating and addressing the psychosocial problems of those innocent Tamil children, exploited by an extremist terrorist outfit - LTTE. The LTTE was ruthless in its pursuit for a mono-ethnic state, as death and disaster became a norm in the North and East for three decades. Women and children were the most affected either turned into suicide bombers or forced to the battlefront as cannon fodders.

The following article complied by Prof. Daya Somasundaram and Dr. Ruwan Jayathunge provides a clear overview of the child soldiers issue.

Moral Development

Children's moral development can be disrupted by their participation in armed conflicts. Normally children learn to conform to a number of social rules and expectations as they become participants in the culture. Children and adolescents who had been displaced by civil war in Colombia reported expecting that they and others would steal and hurt people despite acknowledging that it would be morally wrong to do so, and many of them, especially adolescents, judged that taking revenge against some groups was justifiable.

Social learning theorists like Albert Bandura claim that children initially learn how to behave morally through modeling. Many child soldiers had learned their social behaviour through adult militants and for a number of years these senior figures were their role models. They had learned that aggression and violence were acceptable behaviour and killing the enemy was a correct. They were constantly taught that kindness, compassion and forgiveness were signs of weakness. The senior members of the rebel forces did killings and torture in front of the children for them to observe and learn. According to Bandura's postulation, individuals acquire aggressive responses using the same mechanism that they do for other complex forms of social behaviour: direct experience or the observation-modeling of others. For a number of years violence had become a way of life for these children. For years they believed that violence was a legitimate means of achieving one's aims and it was an accepted form of behaviour. They find it difficult to disengage from violent thoughts and have a transition to a non-violent lifestyle.

Participation in war and indoctrination into the ideologies of hatred and violence leaves children's moral sensibilities distorted. Children may hand over their guns, but they cannot so easily abandon the violent ways of thinking in which they have been trained. Part of demobilization is enabling the child to move away from violence and into a more inclusive and constructive way of life. The inclusion of peace education in curricula facilitates this process.

Cognitive Development

Recruiting children for military purposes and exposing them to combat lead to problems in their cognitive development. When children are indoctrinated and forced to perform acts like killings, destructions and torture their cognitive schemas take a pathological shift. Their problem solving skills are diminished and logical thinking is suppressed by the ideology. They are taught to react instead of thinking. They just obey orders from the senior militants and act like perfect killing machines. The time they spend in training and hiding in jungles, doing bunker duty and participating in various attacks, seriously limit them for fruitful learning opportunities.

The Russian Psychologist Lev Vagotsky's sociocultural theory emphasizes the role in development of cooperative dialogues between children and more knowledgeable members of society. The recruitment and military usage of children limit their associating with knowledgeable members of society like teachers, clergy and other community leaders. There were no educational or intellectual stimulations for the child soldiers. Vagotsky expressed that children learn the culture of their community through these interactions. For child soldiers these interactions became restricted and their universe is limited to combat and violence. These children were deprived of cultural tools with limited time to read or write. Their vocabulary mostly consisted of war and violence based terms. Demobilized children have limited vocabulary and language skills. Children who enter with limited vocabulary knowledge develop more slowly over time than their peers who have rich vocabulary knowledge. It has been reported that many young child soldiers were unable to perform cognitive tasks like reading comprehension or to solve mathematical word problems during their stay with the rebels. Although many child soldiers wore wristwatches pompously, they were unable to read time.

Learning Difficulties

When rehabilitated, child soldiers go back to school once again. They have been away from the school environment for many years. Their cognitive and leaning skills were adversely affected by the war at a significant level. Despite all these odds the children struggle to study and learn new social skills. The memories of war have not left them completely. Children proved most susceptible to anxiety and emotional problems. Teachers have observed a wide range of learning problems in former child soldiers. They had missed a vast amount of teachable moments by the mentors and unfortunately had spent crucial time with rebels. Instead of reading, writing and doing math they were taught how to shoot and kill.

Some children have attention problems. Memory difficulties may be due to psychological distress that they experience. They continue to struggle with learning in the classrooms. In some schools peer rejection was recorded following their past history of war experience.

The communities have not fully accepted the former child combatants. When facing social rejection former child soldiers experience embarrassment, confusion, and humiliation and it could go hand in hand with falling behind their peers in school. Some are poorly motivated and show anger and frustration at school. The affected children are becoming withdrawn, shy, anxious, and helpless with a devalued sense of personal worth and lower personal expectations.
Experts believe that education is a form of powerful social integration and rehabilitative apparatus. Therefore education is the way out for most of these war victims. However, further research has found that although the majority of children greatly benefit from access to education, some former child soldiers are not interested in continuing their education.

Appropriate help, including coaching in learning strategies or treatment should be offered to the ex-child combatants with learning difficulties. Educational bridging programmes work well in these settings, as they enable returning children to achieve some basic literacy and primary level competencies in a relatively short time. Bridge programmes effectively create a base from which the child can move to other learning options. In most cases, children proceed to vocational education. Vocational training exists to help children gain skills in agriculture, animal husbandry, baking, carpentry, crafting, masonry, mechanics, tailoring and a variety of other trades.

Behavioural Problems

Former child soldiers exposed to brutal episodes of war-related violence face a range of behaviour problems. In addition, post-conflict factors may contribute to varying degrees of vulnerability to adverse behavioral outcomes. According to Lev Vygotsky the child's culture and community that he lives in largely affects his development. Vygotsky believed that important learning by the child occurs through social interaction.

For a number of years child soldiers spend time with adult militants under strict rules and regulations. The children were constantly exposed to hostile situations that had negative impact on their psychosocial wellbeing. The children's thinking pattern and cognitive schemas changed in to more aggressive and violent direction. The children were indoctrinated to perform atrocities without asking questions. They witnessed the gloomy realties of war that made drastic changes in their behaviour. The children who had committed atrocities in the past have high risk of developing conduct disorders or anti-social personality disorder and addiction problems if their mental health issues are not appropriately addressed.

In Nepal, Kohrt and his team in 2008 concluded that post-conflict factors such as stigma might contribute to adverse mental health outcomes. Former child soldiers in his sample showed significantly higher symptoms of depression and PTSD compared to matched controls even after adjusting for exposure to traumatic events. In 2010 the researcher Betancourt did a prospective study to investigate psychosocial adjustment in male and female former child soldiers in Sierra Leone using 156 male and female child soldiers. Over the 2-year period of follow-up, youth who had wounded or killed others during the war demonstrated increases in hostility. It has been reported that former child soldiers in Uganda had various behaviour problems and some of them were charged with anti-social activity after their demobilization. Over 70% of prisoners in the juvenile crime unit in the Gulu District, Uganda are former child soldiers, incarcerated on charges of rape, assault and theft.

Social relationships play a key role in child's behavior as explained by the Psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner. Nested interacting spheres of social relationships that determine individual behavior and well-being are the fundamental components of analysis in social ecology. When these children were abducted and kept in camps, they had no way of having healthy social relationships.

Child Soldiers and Problems of Reintegration in to Society

Reintegration of the ex-child soldiers could be challenging. Child soldiers often face psychological and social problems. It has been reported that sometimes their community members ostracize these children fearing their war time activities. Some of these children had killed or tortured their relatives. These factors hinder the child soldiers reintegrating back into society and living meaningful and productive lives.

A number of studies done in Asian, African and Latin American countries show that reintegration of ex-child soldiers face similar challenges. In some countries the conflicts still prevail and liberated child solders still have impending threats such as recapture by the rebels, persecution by the authorities and attempts to harm them by the members of their community for past atrocities.

The Coordinators of Save the Children, Gulu Uganda, found that three months after the rescue of 300 ex-child soldiers in 2004-2005, none were found residing in the community in which they were supposed to have been reintegrated. It should be stressed that it is those responsible for the recruitment, training and deployment of child soldiers who should be charged as war criminals, not the child soldiers themselves who surrender or are captured. They should not be treated as criminals or juvenile delinquents, but offered appropriate psychological, socio-economic and educational opportunities for rehabilitation. Successful reintegration of child soldiers into society had been reported in many countries around the world.

Angola's demobilization exercise, which lasted from 1995 to 1997, was one of the most extensive in the history of the United Nations. It was perhaps the first time that children were specifically included in a peace process. While not explicit in the 1994 Lusaka Protocol, their demobilization and reintegration was declared a priority in the first resolution adopted by the commission set up to implement the peace agreement. Partnerships among local civil society networks made it possible for many children to return to their homes.

One longitudinal study documented that post-conflict experiences such as family support and economic opportunity played a role in the mental health of 39 Mozambican males re-interviewed 16 years after reintegration. Post conflict rehabilitation is crucial to the ex- child combatants. The society should be empathetic and create a healthy environment to these traumatized children to recuperate and reintegrate into society as productive members. The researcher Betancourt is of the view that former child soldiers' acute war experiences have long-term consequences, but the nature and extent of these consequences are influenced by post-conflict risk and protective factors.

Many experts have highlighted that reintegration of child soldiers should emphasize three components: family reunification, psychosocial support and education, and economic opportunity.

Courtesy: The Island





Contact Information:: Send mail to with questions or comments about this web site.
Last modified: May 13, 2012.

Copyright 2008 Policy Research & Information Unit of the Presidential Secretariat of Sri Lanka. All Rights Reserved.