Monday,23 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1164, (12 - 18 September 2013)
Monday,23 October, 2017
Issue 1164, (12 - 18 September 2013)

Ahram Weekly

Children of turmoil

Caught amidst the murky waters of the game of politics, children are the ones bearing the brunt. Nashwa Abdel-Tawab reports on the psychological impact of political violence on the most vulnerable members of our society

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Al-Ahram Weekly

As the hands of the clock crept past the 7pm cut-off time for the curfew two weeks ago, an Egyptian household anxiously awaited the return of a family member. Five-year-old Mohamed asked about his aunt’s whereabouts in a worried tone. Upon hearing that army officers had detained her for breaking the curfew, but that she would soon be returning home, Mohamed broke into tears. “No, the army will kill her and I won’t see her again. I know everything. Don’t lie to me,” he wailed.
Mohamed eventually calmed down after calling his aunt several times, but he remained distraught, sitting for a while in a corner of the family room deep in thought, before silently and solemnly retreating to his own room. A while later, he emerged dressed up as an army officer, play-gun and game weapons in hand and headed to the front door saying that he was going out to save his aunt himself. His father stopped him, walked him back to the family room and reassured him that his aunt was soon to return safely. Mohamed did not relax or undress for two-and-a-half hours, repeatedly trying to make his way to the front door, until his aunt finally came home.
This child belongs to a family that has no particular political leanings. The only exposure he has to current events comes through the television talk shows that he hears in the background as he plays at home. The conclusion such a child has undoubtedly and lamentably drawn from what he overhears probably goes something like this: home is safe; out is dangerous; and you have to be armed if you go out.
What children are exposed to today is a world apart from the cartoons, children’s programmes and video games that had been their only source of entertainment before the recent political events in Egypt unfolded. Children are now subjected to a daily dose of live scenes of riot police, armoured vehicles, bulldozers, helicopters, street battles, violence and blood brought to them through television screens from the streets straight into their homes. Some children bore direct witness to oppression, violence, bloodshed and family loss. Moreover, outings, visits and trips have been curtailed due to the curfew. Even the way some adults around them talk has changed, with tones of suspicion and aversion towards the other easily discernible.
The case of Mohamed is particularly troubling due to his young age. But what about the older children who belong to the families of Muslim Brotherhood (MB) members and Mohamed Morsi supporters who took part in the Rabaa Al-Adaweya and Nahda sit-ins as they witnessed the clearing away of the encampments, the violence that ensued and the abhorrent loss of life that took place?
With banners and graffiti on some streets that read like this: “To all Ikhwanis, you are terrorists,” how are the children that belong to Brotherhood families expected to go to school and mingle with friends who might belong to “the other” camp?
A 14-year-old girl lost her father on her birthday, which happened to be the day of the clearing of the sit-ins. She witnessed his killing at the hands of a fellow countryman, a riot policeman. She knelt beside her father trying in vain to save him. To find solace, she later said, “Father gave me the best birthday present ever by becoming a martyr.” Rather than respecting her loss, people around her called him a terrorist. Her mother was allegedly forced to state that her husband had committed suicide so that she can be given his corpse for burial. In her darkest moment of pain, this girl was subjected to oppression as well. How could you talk to her about revolution principles and a better future?
How are those children expected to return to school with no room in their hearts and heads for any kind of academic learning? How could the son of a police officer and that of a Rabaa demonstrator — both men killed at the clearing of the encampment — be expected to sit side by side in the same classroom? Are we ready to handle this ticking time bomb at our schools?
Regardless of where the truth lies, political disputes have resulted in bloodshed and a consequent anger, hatred and deep division among Egyptians. Few people from any of the “camps” have attempted to put their political convictions aside to think about the effect their disputes are having on those who are paying the heaviest price: Egypt’s children. Leaving aside those children who have been abducted, injured or killed, the greatest toll is on the rest of the children who have been witnesses to this chapter of the country’s history and whose lives have been changed by it forever.
Ayman Ammar, a United Nations socio-psychiatrist and a member of a well-known MB family during the 1960s who has stopped being an MB supporter many years ago, said the situation is catastrophic. “But time can heal it. There is no national strategy in place for therapy, but individual cases can find good care through the initiatives of several psychiatrists nationwide.”
“Children are stronger than we think,” said Ammar. “Of course, kids belonging to MB families will suffer more. Their parents have to abandon their attitude of self-denial. Some Ikhwan that I know have started to evolve now and talk politics without forcing religion into these matters. This is a good sign. If this becomes the mainstream attitude of the Morsi supporters, they can mingle in society again and they will save themselves and their kids from the fate of being a sect or a cult like the Shias. We all want to avoid this scenario.”
Research shows that despite the fact that war and political bloody turmoil are unhealthy and place tremendous burdens on child and adolescent development, there is evidence that “conflict children” are remarkably resilient and that they can endure and, in many cases, even prosper developmentally despite the harsh conditions.
According to Ammar, these children can only turn adversity into strength if they are handled well. Their difficult memories need to be addressed, explained and turned into strong and positive developmental points. In essence, the human mind is not merely a mirror for external violence; rather, children and adolescents construct their experiences according to the meanings given to them and the various social and psychological preconditions that accompany violence.
“It is every parent’s responsibility now to help their kids be mentally sane even if they themselves are suffering,” Ammar said.
Scientists have studied the impact of violence on children in a number of contexts, showing that kids who watch lots of violent TV programmes or movies, or who often play violent video games, become more aggressive. But regular exposure to ethnic or political violence affects aggressive behaviour and induces post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms — such as nightmares, emotional numbness, irritability, re-experiencing, avoidance, fear, anxiety, depression, anger, hostility, aggression, self-destructive behaviour, feelings of isolation and stigma, poor self-esteem, difficulty in trusting others, substance abuse, relationship problems with peers and family members, and problems with school performance — among young people.
Clinical reports suggest that elementary school-aged children may not experience visual flashbacks or amnesia for aspects of the trauma. However, they do experience “time skew” and “omen formation”, which are not typically seen in adults. Time skew refers to a child mis-sequencing trauma-related events when recalling the memory. Omen formation is a belief that there were warning signs that predicted the trauma. As a result, children often believe that if they are alert enough, they will recognise warning signs and avoid future traumas.
School-aged children also reportedly exhibit post-traumatic play or re-enactment of the trauma in play, drawings or verbalisations. Post-traumatic play is different from re-enactment in that post-traumatic play is a literal representation of the trauma, involves compulsively repeating some aspect of the trauma and does not tend to relieve anxiety. An example of post-traumatic play is an increase in playing shooting games after exposure to a shooting. Post-traumatic re-enactment, on the other hand, is more flexible and involves behaviourally recreating aspects of the trauma — as in carrying a weapon after exposure to violence.
This is attested to by the fact that for three years following the 2011 revolution, there was a rise in knife fights being reported among children and adolescents of different political views at schools.
Ahmed Abdallah, a socio-psychologist who devised quite a few therapeutic initiatives before and after the 25 January Revolution, one of them publicly known as “Psychiatrists for Revolution”, said that his team and partners had initiated ways to both protect kids from psychological harm and to help those already affected.
“Educating adults about parenting approaches, running workshops, support groups and future awareness lectures, especially for drama writers, journalists, media presenters, school teachers, as well as ensuring the availability of adequate social and therapeutic resources in schools and communities would be important first steps,” said Abdallah.
“Our children are at a greater risk, which means we really need a much greater intervention at the national policy level to address these issues. If this is not addressed well, we’ll be planting the seeds for the next conflict. All wars and violent acts inflict collateral damage on youth and how that is handled might make or break the future of a nation.”
“Children are at a critical developmental period when their personalities are being moulded,” explained Abdallah. “We’re talking about how their beliefs, their social cognitions and their emotional reactions are changed. And once these cognitions become crystallised, it’s very difficult to dissolve them. It’s a social and communal responsibility and we should all care and share.”
In less than two weeks time, Egyptian children will be back in school, but business will not be as usual after so much has changed in their lives. As we are as yet sorely lacking a national strategy to deal with these children at the psychological level, every parent would be well advised to pay close attention to the emotional needs of their children and to devise their own household tactics for psychological damage reduction.


Tips for parents:
To protect children from post-traumatic stress disorder and its negative consequences, Ammar and Abdallah offer parents a few recommendations:
- Children should be surrounded by an accepting, non-hostile environment and should be protected from people who try to enforce their opinions on others.
- The basics of human rights and human discourse should be cherished and promoted.
- Emotionally fragile children should not be subjected to violent scenes on TV.
- Avoid watching talk shows and having political discussion in their presence.
- Spend more time with children and allow them to have heart-to-heart conversations with you.
- Give children calming messages and reassuring facts.
- Give them simple tasks to do from time to time to raise their confidence in their abilities.
- Encourage children to take part with other children in activities that promote friendship, tolerance and understanding of the other.
- Show love to children and to others whom you disagree with.
Note: If a child displays multiple symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder — mentioned above — individual medical help should be sought.

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