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War, trauma, and flight: an interdisciplinary symposium on the consequences for affected families

Chair: Tobias Hecker, Bielefeld University, Germany

Discussant: Laura K. Taylor, University College Dublin, Ireland

Overall Abstract:

Millions of people around the world are affected by war and displacement, as the current war in Ukraine demonstrates once again. People who experience war and violence have an increased risk for mental health problems. Research on adult refugees is now quite well developed. The number of studies on refugee children has also increased in recent years, although there is still a need for more research in this area. However, studies that examine the consequences of war, flight, and trauma from a family perspective, considering intra-family dynamics, are very rare.

In this interdisciplinary symposium we will address the consequences of war, flight, and trauma from a family perspective. Based on studies in very different conflict settings in the Middle East (e.g., Syria, Gaza) and Africa (Burundi, Nigeria), the speakers will focus on the link between parental and child mental health, also considering potential family mediators, such as family violence or relationship quality. They will also present results on consequences of traumatic experiences beyond the direct mental health impairments, such as the cognitive development of the affected children or the willingness of residents to host displaced persons. In addition, family interventions that have been tested in conflict settings will be presented. A final interdisciplinary discussion will draw out implications for practice and research in family psychology and identify approaches for research, intervention, and prevention.


Prof. Tobias Hecker, PhD, Institute for interdisciplinary Conflict and Violence research & Department of Psychology, Bielefeld University, Germany


Prof. Laura K. Taylor, PhD, School of Psychology, University College Dublin, Ireland

Papers in this Symposium:

Florian Scharpf, PhD, Bielefeld University, Germany

1) The role of parental factors for the mental health of refugee youth: Evidence from a multi-informant study with Burundian families

Florian Scharpf, Edna Kyaruzi, Getrude Mkinga, Faustine Bwire Masath & Tobias Hecker

Parents significantly shape the impact of adversity on their children`s mental health. Notwithstanding, there is scant evidence on the role of parents for children`s adjustment in refugee camps. Available studies are hampered by their reliance on only one parent and a lack of data from multiple informants. We conducted a cross-sectional study with Burundian families living in refugee camps in Tanzania to examine a) the prevalence of children`s and parents` traumatic experiences and mental health problems and b) associations between parental factors including their mental health and parenting and children`s adjustment. Data collection took place in the three refugee camps Nyarugusu, Nduta and Mtendeli in Western Tanzania. Using systematic random sampling we selected 230 family triads consisting of the oldest child in primary school age, the mother/female caregiver, and the father/male caregiver. Children and parents participated in individual structured interviews conducted by Tanzanian psychologists or trained assistants from the refugee community. Children and parents reported high levels of traumatic experiences. The prevalence of mental health problems among children was lower than in previous studies [5.7% for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and between 10.9% and 15.9% for child- and parent-reported emotional and behavioral problems]. Higher prevalence rates were found among mothers (PTSD: 32.6%, general distress: 87.4%) and fathers (PTSD: 29.1%, general distress: 83.9%). Mothers` psychopathology was indirectly positively related to children`s psychopathology through an insecure mother-child relationship and more maltreatment by mothers, whereas the association between fathers` and children`s psychopathology was direct. Higher levels of maltreatment by parents were related to children`s memory deficits both directly and indirectly through increased psychopathology. The findings suggest that prevention and intervention approaches targeting parents` mental health and caregiving may improve the mental health of refugee youth living in resource-poor camp settings.

Prof. Gustav Gredeback, PhD, Uppsala University, Sweden

2) How do parent’s traumatic experiences and mental health impact the cognitive development of refugee children?

Gustaf Gredebäck & Jonathan Hall

We will present the results from an experimental and cross-sectional study that focus on refugee children’s cognitive capacities, how they are affected by their parent’s war related experiences and mental health. One hundred refugee families (174 adults [Age: M=39.8, SD=7.8, range=[22,60], Sex: 55.7% women] and 233 children [Age: M=12.2, SD=3, range=[6,18]; Sex: 42.5% girls]) from Syria (the majority from Aleppo) conducted experimental tasks assessing fluid intelligence (WASI), attention (visual search), social cognition (Emotion processing), proactive/reactive control (AX-CPT), and risk taking (BART). Parents also participated in an interview detailing their war-related experiences (HTQ), their current mental health (PTS), and their current home (CHAOS, HOME-SF), and psychosocial (FPSQ), environment.

Results were analyzed using a series of multiple regression models each focusing on a single psychological construct and associated predictor variables. The children’s social cognitive abilities and their reactive/proactive control were both influenced by their mothers mental health (while controlling for war-related experience, education, age, and other variables of interest). Father’s mental health or experiences did not impact children’s development. One moderating factor is the discipline type used by mothers, with harsh punishment being associated with poor maternal mental health and poor outcomes in children. These mothers were younger (than other in the sample), they experienced downward mobility, discrimination and rated themselves less religious. Other cognitive capacities were not impacted to the same degree, including intelligence and risk taking.

These results point to a generational transfer from mothers to children where maternal mental health, impacted by mothers war-related experiences, impact children’s cognitive development. However, the analysis suggests that light-touch interventions that create a small, but sustainable, improvement in maternal mental health could be sufficient to boost children’s development.

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Prof. Peter Onah Thomson, PhD,Appalachian State University, USA

3) Threat, Empathy, and Acceptance of Forcibly Displaced Persons

Peter Onah Thompson, Jonathan Hall, & James Igoe Walsh

Durable settlement of conflicts depends on the safe, voluntary, and dignified return of displaced persons to their areas of origin or their resettlement elsewhere. Successful return or resettlement, in turn, depends on citizens’ willingness to host and integrate the displaced into their community. What factors lead individuals to accept displaced persons?

One important answer is altruism born of suffering. Individuals who have suffered war exposure and trauma have more empathy towards, and are more willing to host, displaced persons. This altruism extends to some, but not all, outgroups. We lack a good explanation of this difference. Prior research has speculated, but not established, that citizens are less accepting of individuals from outgroups that have perpetrated violence against their ingroup. This suggests that acceptance of displaced persons is influenced by perception of threat. We use a threat management theory as our starting point. According to this theory, "primordial" categories of social perception provide information about the potential costs and benefits of social interaction. This suggests that experience of war violence calibrates threat sensitivity; those exposed to greater violence, and especially those suffering psychological distress, are more sensitive to threat cues. We hypothesize that respondents are more willing to host ethnic ingroup members, women, elderly, and married displaced persons compared to outgroup, men, young and single displaced persons. This tendency should be amplified among victims of war violence.

We assess these hypotheses with a conjoint survey experiment in areas of Nigeria to which internally displaced persons seek to move. Our design allows us not only to disentangle these social characteristics of the target of potential hosting behavior, but also to examine the role of perceived threat and feelings of empathy. The findings have important implications for understanding how citizens balance more self-regarding and other-regarding feelings towards displaced persons.

Kirsi Peltonen, PhD., University of Turku, Finland

4) Family Approach to Wellbeing and Achievement among War-affected Palestinian Children

Safwat Y. Diab, Raija-Leena Punamäki, & Kirsi Peltonen

Family factors are agreed to influence children’s vulnerability and recovery from war trauma, as research shows supportive parenting, secure attachment, good parental mental health, and warm siblingship to protect war-affected children. However, few studies have applied a genuine family approach to understand how and why these factors may be especially decisive for child wellbeing and functioning in war conditions. Therefore, in the spirit of family systems theories, we, first, expect to find unique family types reflecting family factors in triads of children, mothers, and fathers, based on sibling relationships, parenting styles, parental scholastic involvement, and parent mental health (depression). Second, we analyze how these identified family types are associated with children’s academic achievements of language and math and mental health indicated by PTSD. Third, we analyze whether some family types can protect children’s academic achievement and mental health from negative impact of traumatic war events. The participants were 303 Palestinian children of 10–13 (M = 10.94 + .50) years of age (51.2% girls) and their parents from the Gaza Strip. Children reported their mental health (PTSD), sibling relationships (warmth, intimacy, rivalry, and conflict), parents’ scholastic involvement (practical support, academic encouragement, and discouragement), and traumatic war events (violence, losses, and destruction). Their language and math achievements were measured by standard tests. Parents reported their parenting styles (supportive, psychological, and behavioral control) and mental health (Depression). In the presentation, the initial findings of the study will be presented. We will also reflect the findings regarding psychosocial interventions among Palestinian families.


Lynda M. Sagrestano, Ph.D., Deutsche Jugendinstitut

Landscape Analysis of The Content and Delivery of Online Parenting Programs for Separated and Divorcing Families in the US

Lynda M. Sagrestano

In an increasingly digitized world, and in the face of a global pandemic, the value of offering adult education programs in an online format is increasing. To understand the landscape of online parenting program offerings in the US, a systematic search was conducted to identify programs focused on separating and divorcing families, targeting more sustained programs of minimum 8 hours. Eight programs meeting the criterion were identified, whereas most were shorter, reflecting court mandates for parenting courses for divorcing parents in many states. Using a case study approach, 4 longer programs and 2 evidence-based shorter programs offered asynchronously were reviewed and assessed for content and delivery methods. Recommendations were developed based on this landscape analysis and case studies, organized according to organizational considerations, inclusiveness and accessibility, content considerations, video/interactive elements, skill building, downloads/supplementary materials, and quizzes and surveys.