Researcher discusses impact of violence on children and adolescents in war zones

By Libby Pearson

Children and adolescents in war-torn countries do not necessarily become psychologically troubled as a result of their violent experiences, according to Brian Barber, a professor in the Department of Child and Family Studies at the University of Tennessee.

Barber spoke Wednesday afternoon on “Making Meaning of Political Violence: Comparing Palestinian and Bosnian Adolescents,” as part of the Committee on Human Development’s Culture, Life Course, and Mental Health Workshop.

Barber used data collected from the years he lived with families in the Gaza Strip and interviews he conducted with teenagers in Sarajevo to show that, despite the similarities of the wars in each country, their psychological effects on teenagers could be profoundly different.

Barber studied Palestinians who were adolescents during the first Intifada, the uprising from 1987 to 1993 of Palestinians against Israelis in the occupied territories. He said that the first Intifada was interesting because it showed an unprecedented involvement of adolescents, who did everything from participate in marches to throw Molotov cocktails at Israeli troops. The first Intifada also showed a “surprisingly high” involvement of women, who are normally the “most private of the citizens” in Muslim Palestine.

Barber studied factors such as the intensity, frequency, and duration of violence; the proximity and physicality of the fighting; the personal gain and loyalty to leaders that the adolescents felt; and whether they felt that they were passive victims, coerced into joining the movement, or volunteers. He asked adolescents questions about their involvement in the Intifada, such as whether they had distributed or followed instructions on leaflets, or whether a family member or a neighbor had been beaten to death during the violence.

Barber found only a weak connection between involvement in the Intifada and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or anti-social behavior.

The most pronounced psychological effects were simply a higher instance of smoking among Palestinian men and a higher instance of depression among women who felt that they were victims.

Overall, the men and women held the same values—such as those of education, family, and religion—before and after the war.

Out of those Barber interviewed in Sarajevo, he found the exact opposite to be the case. The majority of the youth of Sarajevo were morbid, depressed, and angry. Barber said he found that he could not turn his conversations with them away from the war, which at the time of his interviews had occurred four years before. “They needed to talk about it, and in the most negative terms,” Barber said.

The main difference between the youth of the Gaza strip and the youth of Sarajevo was their attachment of meaning to the events of their respective wars, Barber said. He coined the term “Identity-Enriching Meaning Systems,” a system present before the traumatic events that helped to stave off psychological damage.

While adolescents in the Gaza Strip narrated the first Intifada as an event that had historical, political, and cultural continuity with their pasts, the violence in Bosnia took adolescents by surprise. For example, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip strongly identify themselves as Muslim, while Bosnians are primarily a secular society. Therefore, the ethno-religious tension that suddenly sprang up against Bosnian Muslims made little sense to the adolescents of Sarajevo.

Barber challenged the idea that humans passively receive psychological damage when they are raised in violent environments.

He also criticized the weight on PTSD given by Western psychologists to inhabitants of war-torn areas in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. He said that it was dangerous to create concern about possible psychological damage in the minds of war victims where there was no concern before.