Minefields in Their Hearts: The Price of Societal Violence

by Clara Gerhardt, Ph.D., CFLE, Department of Human Development and Family Science, Samford University; Thea Loubser, M.A.
NCFR Report
Content Area
Families and Individuals in Societal Contexts

The price of violence is always too high; the price can be "minefields in their hearts," to quote a book title on the topic (Apfel & Simpson, 1996). Societal violence and the extremes of war have far-reaching effects on both adult and child victims. Even those not directly affected by violence feel some of the effects indirectly because there are systemic influences that can permeate entire communities. Directly, there is the impact of trauma and, indirectly, there is the loss of key relationships.

One of the authors (Thea Loubser) was the victim of a violent crime while living in South Africa. Ironically, she had been researching the effects of societal violence on children in that country. The attack occurred while she was working on her master's thesis, and it took several years before she found the emotional closure to put the traumatic event behind her and complete her research. It comes as no surprise that researchers in the field of war and community violence frequently grew up in war zones themselves. To them, the research is a form of self-help and healing. In their edited volume with the poignant title "Minefields in Their Hearts…" Apfel and Simon stated the following about some of their contributing authors: "As researchers they have been sensitized and there is emotional resonance. They have personal memories of the terrifying years spent in hostile environments." (p. 3).

Community violence draws into its circle the active perpetrators and their victims, as well as those who are indirectly affected by it, merely by being members of that system. The words societal and communal violence are typically used interchangeably and can refer to violence in various contexts. When interpersonal violence is not directed at known victims it creates anxiety and dissonance within the entire system. There may be anonymous and arbitrary violent acts, shrouding the violence in anonymity and adding a diffuseness to it that is difficult to process emotionally. Acts of violence can unite victims, but there is a high price to pay in terms of the disquiet that follows in its wake. From the literature it is apparent that frequency of exposure to community violence is positively linked to a variety of symptoms, including depression, stress symptoms related to the trauma, aggressive behavior, and interpersonal problems. Some children act out their trauma through somatic symptoms. Fear is a common theme for children living in violent zones.

Community violence can be experienced as a witness or as an actual victim. Violence that occurs within communities affects all members irrespective of age. Because of age-related developmental differences, children may face challenges different from the one experienced by adults as they deal with the insidious aftereffects. Even children who have not personally been exposed to violence, but who are aware of the occurrence of societal violence through their peers, family and friends, and the media, will react in a variety of ways. The effects of constant low-range exposure to dangers within a community can lead to hypervigilant children, who are more anxious because they may perceive threat in otherwise-neutral situations. They are acutely aware of the intrinsic dangers within the community caused by societal violence that is typically random and often not intended or directed at one person in particular.

Violence on a macro-systemic level

There can be a cumulative impact of the effects of communal or societal violence that occur within a very large system, such as a nation. Because communal violence is a threat within the macro, or larger, system, there is no simple parallel in research. However, work done with children who have been in abusive situations throws light on some of the emotive processes. Research in this area confirms that if abuse continues and is persistent, outcomes are more negative. The effects can be internalized into the child's self-concept at a critical time of development, thereby affecting future functioning. Constant low-range exposure to community dangers lead to hypervigilant and anxious children perceiving threat in neutral situations.

A number of African countries deal with extremely difficult situations, involving the conscription of minors into military forces, child labor, sexual trafficking, and gender prejudices. Numerous children cannot attend school because of dangerous circumstances or because schooling is unavailable. The United Nations' estimates of children affected in this manner are shockingly high.

Southern Africa faces its own challenges. Economic problems and associated unemployment have precipitated high crime rates, and violence contributes to a pattern of survival, regardless of how destructive the outcomes are. The statistics for a country such as South Africa are disheartening; it ranks extremely high for total crimes as well as assault and rape. This aggressive climate breeds anxiety, vigilance, and the heightened sense to defend oneself. These were key themes in 2014, during two high-profile South African court cases. One was the trial of former Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius, accused of the death of his girlfriend, and the other was the Dewani case, in which Anni Dewani's life ended brutally while she was on her honeymoon in Cape Town.

Parenting to protect children

The age and stage of development at which a child is when he or she experiences trauma shape the way that child responds to trauma. If the violence leads to the loss of a loved one, a young child may be at a stage in which he or she has a great capacity for powerful imagination. When engaging in magical thinking, children may incorrectly attribute some of the blame on themselves and associate it with their own behavior. For children to have a good image of their daily environment, or their own little world, they need to feel secure and unthreatened. Efforts to protect children can progress to overprotection, whereby parents can become overly authoritarian, limiting the child's possibilities for self-expression.

Children growing up behind fenced yards, or who cannot go to school because it is too dangerous, cannot experience the same freedom of movement their parents may have known. They live in a different world than the one in which their parents grew up. Now, children cannot be left to do simple tasks alone, such as strolling to the closest shop, or even walking to school, because of fears for their safety. This aspect ties in with family stressors, as parents tend to adopt an authoritarian or controlling parenting style in an effort to safeguard their children. The bigger picture is that parenting styles are affected by the perceived stressors in the community and, in an effort to protect their children, parents become overprotective. Parental attitudes can be part of the problem, although the preferred alternative is for parents to becoming part of the solution, through community initiatives and mutual support.

Effects on children

Research on brain development in children indicates that the brain develops optimally if it is not subjected to stress and anxiety. Work with severely neglected children who display attachment disorders has also supported that brain development is affected by extreme situations. Slightly older children and preteens are sufficiently advanced cognitively that they perceive violence in a very realistic manner and can better understand some of the dangers and implications of violence. There is, however, virtually no way of completely shielding these children against the indirect exposure to societal violence.

Children can also be exposed indirectly to trauma through the following avenues: aggression and crime as witnessed on videos and movies; information communicated by parents, teachers, and peers; and awareness of burglaries of and forced entries into parental homes and homes of friends and acquaintances. Some children subjectively experience events in the lives of peers, as if they had been personally been exposed to them; this is referred to as "trauma by proxy." Children who have been exposed to previous trauma are more sensitized toward traumatic incidents. The generalized anxiety can be maintained by a constant input of disquieting information, which feeds into environmental stressors.

Most violent crimes tend to be committed by adults, and children may generalize this feeling of mistrust to include adults other than the perpetrators. The extant literature indicates that children who have been exposed to societal violence experience some school problems, indicating that they act out their anxieties in more than one area of their lives. Some of the children feel rebellious toward authority, and in school this can lead to anti-authoritarian behavior.

Universal rights of the child

The study of children living in violent areas has made clear that there are difficulties in upholding the "Universal Rights of the Child" as recommended by the United Nations. Two such principles concern safety and dignity of children, and are elaborated in Principles 2 and 10 (United Nations: Convention on Universal Rights of the Child, 1989).

Principle 2 of these aspirations for children states that

The child shall enjoy special protection . . . by law and by other means, to enable him to develop physically, mentally, morally, spiritually and socially in a healthy and normal manner and in conditions of freedom and dignity. In the enactment of laws for this purpose, the best interests of the child shall be the paramount consideration.

Principle 10 states that

The child . . . shall be brought up in a spirit of understanding, tolerance, friendship among peoples, peace and universal brotherhood, and in full consciousness that his energy and talents should be devoted to the service of his fellow men.


There should be encouragement of acts that build community and an awareness of the political dimensions of violence. Factors contributing to resilience and coping can be found at all levels of a system, from the personal through the societal. Strong family networks and community involvement are powerful weapons in maintaining good morale. Although interventions vary greatly, there are commonalities in that genuine and nonjudgmental care for survivors needs to be provided. War and community violence have a very high price, and they take a particularly high toll on children. An interactive network of interventions is required to guide these children and their families toward more effective coping.

Selected reference

Apfel, R. J., & Simon, B. (1996). Minefields in Their Hearts: The Mental Health of Children in War and Communal Violence. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

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