My Top 10 Reasons to Include Children and Families in Discussions of War and Violence

by Judith A. Myers-Walls, Ph.D., CFLE, Professor Emerita, Child Development and Family Studies, Purdue University
NCFR Report
Content Area
Families and Individuals in Societal Contexts
Judith A. Myers-Walls, Ph.D., CFLE

War and violence—they are unpleasantries that we do not want to associate with families and children. We want to think of safety, innocence, and the future. War and violence are about destruction, suffering, and death.

In spite of this apparent incongruity, here are my top 10 reasons why any consideration of the issues of war and violence needs to include a discussion of their impact on children and families. Beyond the impact, these are also reasons to consider the role that children and families can play in coping with and mitigating war and violence.

  1. Children and families are often targeted casualties in armed conflict. Since World War II, civilians have made up a steadily increasing proportion of casualties in armed conflicts. Although some deaths are accidental, many civilians are purposely targeted. This leads to fear, despair, and anger among those in or near any war zone. Children lose parents, parents lose children, schoolgirls are abducted, and children are coerced into military service.
  2. A huge number of families have been displaced from their homes and forced into refugee camps because of war and armed violence. These settings are unhealthy for adults and often fatal to children. As many civil and intracommunal struggles continue for decades, families may lose any sense of home or heritage. Education, health care, and employment are often nonexistent in those settings.
  3. Children are watching. Many children are aware of armed conflicts taking place, even when they occur on the other side of the world. Their awareness varies, but children often know more than adults realize and are affected in a variety of ways. The awareness on the part of children is often accompanied by some level of misunderstanding and confusion. They need help to understand and interpret what they observe.
  4. War and violence have rippling effects. In these times of global communication and travel, a war zone becomes difficult to define. It is difficult to relax and convince ourselves that the violence is "far away." Organizations use social media and other methods that are not constrained by geographical proximity to expand the violence. Refugees carry their experiences and pain across borders. No children and families are immune to the threat of war and violent conflict.
  5. The seeds of hatred and enmity are sown at an early age. People tend to define war, violence, and enemies according to their own personal and historical background. Although international coalitions and alliances change over time, many people tend to hold onto the distrust taught them when they were young. Previous generations learned to be cautious with Japanese, German, or Russian people. Then it was the Vietnamese. Now it is Muslims from many countries and organizations that span national borders. The childhood expectations of what war is and how it will be fought also become prototypes in the minds of many; is war about oil, genocide, drones, or religion? Interrupting that development of hatred and distrust can have lifelong impacts.
  6. Intervention can promote healing and break the cycle. Research has shown that a powerful way to stop a cycle of family violence is to provide therapeutic and educational interventions that help victims understand and process what has happened to them. Although some impacts of exposure to war and political violence can have possibly permanent results by changing the structure of the brain and hormonal functions, it may be possible to help parents and grandparents come to grips with their experiences and avoid passing on their pain.
  7. Peace and nonviolence can be taught. Since at least World War II, there have been formal, organized efforts at providing peace education. Whereas early efforts focused on adults, many more recent efforts have been directed at children. Techniques in learning communication, problem solving, honoring and celebrating diversity, caring for the environment, and conflict resolution are continually being refined and improved. Studies have shown that many techniques work, but more study is needed to determine the best methods. What would happen if we put as much energy and as many resources into researching methods of peacemaking as are put into the techniques of war?
  8. Children can provide a promising and hopeful focus. The world looks different when adults view it with children in mind. It is hard to ignore the harsh realities of war and terrorism when describing it to children. Children themselves provide a naïve perspective to world events that does not hide behind the smokescreen of rhetoric and jargon. They reflect back the values adults have taught them; for example, "We aren't supposed to fight." Virtually all children describe war as bad and peace as good. What is the impact when adults challenge those beliefs and try to teach them about "the real world?" What if adults listened to children instead?
  9. Working through families can reach the heart of societies. Anyone who works in formal educational settings knows that students bring a lot of preexisting information, values, and biases to a classroom. A lot of teaching goes on at home, whether consciously or not. If we could provide families with the education and tools to support their children's development as peacemakers, we could reach the very heart of the society.
  10. Family professionals can lead the way to a peaceful future. As family professionals, we hold a number of keys. Some of us are prepared to document the impacts that war and violence have on family relationships and children's development. Some of us have the knowledge and skills to help heal the wounds of war and violence so that families can build new chapters in their lives and provide support and caring environments for the next generation. And there are some among us who are experts in disseminating the knowledge and skills to individuals, couples, children, and families that will help them support each other, care for the environment around us, build bridges with those who are different from ourselves, and manage conflicts in creative and mutually supportive ways. All of these actions have the potential to change the future.

Those are my 10 top reasons. What place do these arguments hold in your professional identity? What are you ready to do as a professional to reduce the scourge of war and violence on the world's children and families?

Selected References

Brown University. (2011). Costs of war. Retrieved from

Myers-Walls, J. A. (2004). Children as victims of war and terrorism. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment, & Trauma, 8, 41–62.

Reardon, B. (1988). Comprehensive peace education: Educating for global responsibility. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Salvage, J. (2007). Casualties of war. Nursing Standard, 21, 20–22.

UNESCO. (n.d.). Culture of peace and non-violence. Washington, DC: United Nations. Retrieved from

UNICEF. (2009). Machel study 10-year strategic review: Children and conflict in a changing world. New York, NY: Author.

Wessells, M. G. (1998). The changing nature of armed conflict and its implications for children: The Graca Machel/UN Study. Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 4, 321–334.

Copyright © 2015 National Council on Family Relations (NCFR). Contact NCFR for permission to reprint, reproduce, disseminate, or distribute by any means.