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Developmental and social–ecological perspectives on children, political violence, and armed conflict

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 November 2016

E. Mark Cummings*
Affiliation:
University of Notre Dame
Christine E. Merrilees
Affiliation:
State University of New York, Geneseo
Laura K. Taylor
Affiliation:
Queens University, Belfast
Christina F. Mondi
Affiliation:
University of Notre Dame
*
Address correspondence and reprint requests to: E. Mark Cummings, Department of Psychology, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN 46556; E-mail: cummings.10@nd.edu.
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An increasing number of researchers and policymakers have been moved to study and intervene in the lives of children affected by violent conflicts (Masten, 2014). According to a United Nations Children's Fund (2009) report, over 1 billion children under the age of 18 are growing up in regions where acts of political violence and armed conflict are, as Ladds and Cairns (1996, p. 15) put it, “a common occurrence—a fact of life.” In recent years, the United Nations Children's Fund, advocacy and human rights groups, journalists, and researchers have drawn public attention to the high rates of child casualties in these regions, and to the plights of those children still caught in the crossfire. It has thus become clear that both the challenges and the stakes are higher than ever to promote the safety and well-being of affected children around the world (Masten & Narayan, 2012; Tol, Jordans, Kohrt, Betancourt, & Komproe, 2012).

Type
Special Section Editorial
Copyright
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2016 

An increasing number of researchers and policymakers have been moved to study and intervene in the lives of children affected by violent conflicts (Masten, Reference Masten2014). According to a United Nations Children's Fund (2009) report, over 1 billion children under the age of 18 are growing up in regions where acts of political violence and armed conflict are, as Ladds and Cairns (Reference Ladd and Cairns1996, p. 15) put it, “a common occurrence—a fact of life.” In recent years, the United Nations Children's Fund, advocacy and human rights groups, journalists, and researchers have drawn public attention to the high rates of child casualties in these regions, and to the plights of those children still caught in the crossfire. It has thus become clear that both the challenges and the stakes are higher than ever to promote the safety and well-being of affected children around the world (Masten & Narayan, Reference Masten and Narayan2012; Tol, Jordans, Kohrt, Betancourt, & Komproe, Reference Tol, Jordans, Kohrt, Betancourt, Komproe, Ferrando and Ferrari2012).

Political violence and armed conflict endangers people of all ages; however, developing children may be particularly susceptible to negative and persistent psychosocial outcomes in these contexts. The study of children exposed to political violence and armed conflict is essential to: (a) promoting healthy child development; (b) enhancing affected communities' overall adjustment and human capital; and (c) promoting long-term positive outcomes, including preventing the reemergence of violence conflict.

Thus, looking to the future and keeping in mind the ultimate goal of conducting research that may inform interventions and policies to enhance the lives of vulnerable children, it will be critical to center research agendas around not only the documentation of outcomes among children exposed to political violence and armed conflict but also the identification of the pathways and processes by which exposure leads to particular outcomes over time (Cairns & Dawes, Reference Cairns and Dawes1996; Cicchetti, Reference Cicchetti, Cicchetti and Cohen2006; Sroufe, Reference Sroufe2013: Werner, Reference Wener2012). Unfortunately, process-oriented research studying children, political violence, and armed conflict has been relatively rare to date.

In the face of the many methodological, conceptual, and practical challenges for advancing research in this area, a developmental psychopathology perspective offers valuable directions for advancing research and practice (e.g., intervention) on political violence, armed conflict, and children's well-being and adjustment (Cicchetti, Reference Cicchetti, Cicchetti and Cohen2006; Cicchetti & Cohen, Reference Cicchetti, Cohen, Cicchetti and Cohen1995). A key purpose of this Special Section is to advocate for more advanced research design approaches consistent with a developmental psychopathology perspective and, by means of the empirical studies included in this Special Section, provide tangible models for how scholars in this area of study may achieve more advanced study and scientific understanding of the topic, including promoting these goals in the context of intervention studies. In addition, local commentaries are included to place the contributions of specific empirical papers in cultural perspective, and general commentaries are also included to further articulate and assess the broader contributions to understanding, from both developmental and methodological perspectives, including mapping of future directions for further research and practice toward better helping children and families.

A hallmark for the next generation of research, consistent with a developmental psychopathology perspective, and reflected in the empirical and other contributions of this Special Section, is the conduct of longitudinal studies that embody a process-oriented, social–ecological perspective. Related goals or themes in this regard include (a) the study of development processes in the context of political violence and armed conflict, including trajectories or pathways of development over time of positive as well as negative developmental outcomes and processes (Cicchetti, Reference Cicchetti, Cicchetti and Cohen2006; Cummings & Valentino, Reference Cummings, Valentino, Overton and Molenaar2015); (b) the importance to advanced scientific understanding of complex modeling and analyses of explanatory processes, toward explicating key mediators and moderators of developmental outcomes, including identifying risk, protective, and resilience processes (Cicchetti, Reference Cicchetti, Cicchetti and Cohen2006; Masten, Reference Masten2007; Masten & Tellegen, Reference Masten and Tellegen2012); and (c) the centrality of a social–ecological model for fully articulating the domain of contextual influences on children's development (e.g., Cicchetti & Lynch, Reference Cicchetti and Lynch1993; Cicchetti & Valentino, Reference Cicchetti and Valentino2006; Lynch & Cicchetti, Reference Lynch and Cicchetti1998).

Contexts of Political Violence and Armed Conflict: A Working Definition

Violence unfolds across communities and nations in distinct patterns. There are likely to be commonalities, but also differences, in the natures and experiences of violence in different contexts. Thus, any single, narrowly defined conceptualization of violence cannot hold across all settings. This Special Section is concerned with acts of violence that are (a) collective (e.g., involving at least one organized group) and (b) organized around group identities or political motivations (e.g., as opposed to common crime such as homicide). For the purpose of brevity, we will use the terms political violence and armed conflict interchangeably to denote conflict of this nature. Armed conflict is conceptualized as a contested incompatibility concerning government and/or territory in which the use of armed force between two parties (one of which is the state) results in at least 25 battle-related deaths in a calendar year (Wallensteen & Sollenberg, Reference Wallensteen and Sollenberg2001). By contrast, political violence is a broader term used to indicate conflict in which neither side is the state and/or one-sided violence in which the state or organized groups target civilians (Sundberg, Eck, & Kreutz, Reference Sundberg, Eck and Kreutz2012). In these cases, violence is often organized around identity lines (e.g., political, ethnic, and religious) or other group-based motivations, and often persists long after a peace accord is signed (MacGinty, Muldoon, & Ferguson, Reference MacGinty, Muldoon and Ferguson2007). Of note, despite the working definitions of these constructs, typologies of violence may vary even more broadly and widely across contexts and cultures. This, in itself, is an important topic for future research.

This Introduction is meant to provide a brief overview of the current literature and also to begin outlining the future research directions considered in the Special Section. First, an overview of the historical and current literature on child outcomes in situations of political violence and armed conflict is provided, including research documenting contexts that facilitate both positive and negative outcomes. Second, the emerging area of process-oriented research from a social–ecological perspective is briefly considered, including the role of theory, the study of multiple dimensions of social–ecological context, and the value of exploring the underlying mechanisms of child development in situations of political violence based on longitudinal, process-oriented research designs (Cummings, Goeke-Morey, Merrilees, Taylor, & Shirlow, Reference Cummings, Goeke-Morey, Merrilees, Taylor and Shirlow2014). Third, translational research and efforts to apply existing knowledge to prevention and intervention work is discussed (Cummings & Valentino, Reference Cummings, Valentino, Overton and Molenaar2015). Fourth, the Introduction concludes with a preview of the work reflected in the empirical contributions to the Special Section.

History of Research on the Effects on Children

The body of literature documenting the psychological outcomes of children affected by political violence and armed conflict has evolved over many years, but is nonetheless still limited in significant ways (Werner, Reference Wener2012). Although social psychologists have long been engaged in the study of the impact of political violence and armed conflict, relatively few developmental and clinical psychologists have followed suit. This is unfortunate, given that developmental and clinical psychologists have great potential to make highly significant contributions in this area.

This is reflected by the Society for Research in Child Development's affirmation of this topic as a strategic goal (Masten, Reference Masten2014), including the provision of funding for the meetings associated with this Special Section. Another factor limiting research from child development and abnormal child psychology perspectives is undoubtedly the immense practical and methodological challenges for conducting research and intervention efforts with affected youth (e.g., funding, staffing, and institutional support). Future progress in this area will require collaboration among members of interdisciplinary teams pooling knowledge and helping one another to overcome the challenges of working with vulnerable populations in vulnerable contexts.

Research on the impact of political violence and armed conflict on children has gradually developed over the course of the 20th century, a century fraught with dozens of violent conflicts, two world wars, and the emergence of new governments and technologies that dramatically altered the face of political violence and armed conflict. Over time, the number of civilians, including children and families, directly affected by political violence and armed conflict has increased dramatically. For example, the proportion of soldiers to civilians killed in armed conflict decreased from approximately 9:1 in the early 1890s to approximately 1:9 by the 1990s (Garbarino, Kostelny, & Dubrow, Reference Garbarino, Kostelny and Dubrow1991). Millions of children and families faced conflict-related traumas, such as the deaths of loved ones and displacement from their homes. During the era of the world wars, many psychologists expressed concern over the possible effects of exposure to war-related events on children. As Young (Reference Young1947, p. 500) noted:

The postwar era will be guided by those who were children … during World War II. If the war has caused large numbers of them to have deep-seated maladjustments, the future will be correspondingly jeopardized.

Thus, researchers in the first half of the 20th century began to investigate relations between exposure to political violence and armed conflict and child adjustment. For example, Dudson (Reference Dudson1941) surveyed teachers of children affected by air raids, and Freud and Burlingham (Reference Freud and Burlingham1943) studied traumatic shock and aggression among children who had been orphaned and/or exposed to wartime bombings. While some researchers reported signs of psychosocial maladjustment among affected children, others indicated that the vast majority of children were doing remarkably well given all that they had seen and experienced (see Cairns, Reference Cairns1996, p. 29).

The body of work constructed during this era formed an important foundation for future researchers to build on, raising many questions. Why do some children affected by political violence and armed conflict not experience serious psychological consequences? What factors (e.g., exposure type and family structure) separate these children from those who do demonstrate maladjustment? Despite these and other contributions, it is also important to acknowledge the methodological limitations of many early studies in this area. Study samples were frequently homogeneous and lacked control groups. “Psychological distress” was vaguely and variably defined. Most studies also failed to examine the long-term effects of exposure to political violence and armed conflict, or the role of context in shaping child outcomes. Thus, the stage was set for further, more rigorous and extensive inquiry in this area.

Over the course of the next several decades, researchers continued to explore the psychological outcomes of new generations of children growing up amid political violence and armed conflict, significantly expanding the scope of research. For example, J. Lawrence Aber and colleagues explored psychosocial development and posttraumatic stress symptoms among children who had experienced traumas during the Lebanese Civil War (e.g., Macksoud & Aber, Reference Macksoud and Aber1996). James Garbarino and colleagues utilized a risk accumulation model to study similar variables among children and families from different groups affected by the Palestinian–Israeli conflict (e.g., Garbarino & Kostelny, Reference Garbarino and Kostelny1996; Kostelny & Garbarino, Reference Kostelny and Garbarino1994). In Northern Ireland, Ed Cairns and colleagues developed a program of research investigating factors contributing to the longitudinal adjustment of children growing up during the Troubles of Northern Ireland, adding to the perpetuation of intergroup hostilities between generations (e.g., Cairns, Reference Cairns and Tafjel1982, Reference Cairns1987). A special section of Child Development in 1996 marked the culmination of a century of research in this area, highlighting not only the diversity of psychological outcomes among children exposed to political violence and armed conflict (e.g., Macksoud & Aber, Reference Macksoud and Aber1996; Miller, Reference Miller1996; Straker, Mendelsohn, Moosa, & Tudin, Reference Straker, Mendelsohn, Moosa and Tudin1996) but also a growing movement among researchers to analyze risk factors, protective factors, and child outcomes from developmental perspectives (e.g., Hoffman & Bizman, Reference Hoffman and Bizman1996; Punamäki, Reference Punamäki1996).

The tradition of research in this field of study has continued to advance in the new millennium, expanding to areas of political violence and armed conflict across the globe. In recent years, researchers have sought to sketch pictures of the lives of youth growing up amid increasingly diverse contexts and conflicts, from the Troubles of Northern Ireland (e.g., Cummings, Merrilees, Schermerhorn, Goeke-Morey, & Cairns, Reference Cummings, Merrilees, Schermerhorn, Goeke-Morey and Cairns2011) to the civil wars and contexts of poverty in the Congo (e.g., Torrente, Aber, Johnston, Shivshanker, & Annan, Reference Torrente, Aber, Johnston, Shivshanker and Annan2012), to the multitude of prolonged conflicts in the Middle East (e.g., Boxer et al., Reference Boxer, Huesmann, Dubow, Landau, Gvirsman, Shikaki and Ginges2013), to postconflict tensions in Sierra Leone (e.g., Betancourt, Newnham, McBain, & Brennan, Reference Betancourt, Newnham, McBain and Brennan2013). As the faces of political violence and armed conflict become more complex, so have the questions and challenges faced by researchers in this area. Yet the need for further advances in this area, particularly in the realms of intervention and cross-cultural research, is as great or perhaps even greater than ever. Nearly two decades after the special section of Child Development (Cairns & Dawes, Reference Cairns and Dawes1996), the time has come for researchers of children, political violence, and armed conflict to pool their knowledge even more proactively, to communicate and work more closely together, to identify what they have learned, and to further develop what still needs to be explored.

Impact on child development

Contexts associated with symptoms of child mental health problems

A primary focus of the field has been to study associations between exposure to political violence and child mental health (e.g., Belsky, Reference Belsky2008; Garbarino & Kostelny, Reference Garbarino and Kostelny1996; Qouta, Punamäki, & El Sarraj, Reference Qouta, Punamäki and El Sarraj2008; Sagi-Schwartz, Reference Sagi-Schwartz2008). Children who have been exposed to more frequent and/or severe violence (e.g., witnessing killing, loss of a loved one, or direct attack on home or school) are likely to demonstrate higher levels of mental health symptoms (e.g., Al-Krenawi & Graham, Reference Al-Krenawi and Graham2012; Attanayake et al., Reference Attanayake, McKay, Jeffres, Singh, Burkle and Mills2009; Furr, Comer, Edmunds, & Kendall, Reference Furr, Comer, Edmunds and Kendall2010). Evidence as to whether these symptoms tend to be acute or long term (e.g., persisting months or years after violence has subsided) has been mixed. It is, however, clear that whether or not postexposure symptoms persist, children are commonly confronted with secondary stressors (e.g., poverty, separation from loved ones, and broken social and community relations) that continue to threaten their psychosocial well-being (Shaw, Reference Shaw2003).

Prevalence estimates for clinically significant psychological symptomology among exposed children vary widely from 10% to 90%, depending on trauma type, length, severity, and a variety of individual and environmental factors (see Shaw, Reference Shaw2003). Such symptomology may fall under the umbrellas of internalizing (e.g., depression and anxiety), externalizing (e.g., conduct disorder) or, most frequently, posttraumatic stress disorders. It is also common for children to demonstrate a range of comorbid problems. For example, Hadi and Llabre (Reference Hadi and Llabre1998) reported that among a sample of 8- to 12-year-old Kuwaiti children, 62% exhibited moderate and 27% exhibited severe posttraumatic stress disorder symptomology after the Iraqi invasion of their country, and these symptoms were positively correlated with depressive symptoms.

Researchers have also increasingly recognized the importance of examining negative psychosocial outcomes among exposed children that fall outside of the frameworks of major mental health disorders (e.g., Slone & Shechner, Reference Slone and Shechner2009). For example, various studies have suggested that exposure to political violence and armed conflict increases the risk of nonspecific behavioral and emotional symptoms (e.g., hyperactivity and peer problems) among preschool-aged children (Thabet, Karim, & Vostanis, Reference Thabet, Karim and Vostanis2006; Zahr, Reference Zahr1996). Studies of older samples of children have similarly reported heightened aggression (Al-Krenawi & Graham, Reference Al-Krenawi and Graham2012), increased risk-taking behaviors (Pat-Horenczyk et al., Reference Pat-Horenczyk, Peled, Mirion, Brom, Villa and Chemtob2007); alcohol consumption (Schiff et al., Reference Schiff, Benbenishty, McKay, DeVoe, Liu and Hasin2006); and a host of other problems across the internalizing, attachment, somatic, and sleep sectors (e.g., Sagi-Schwartz, Seginer, & Aldeen, Reference Sagi-Schwartz, Seginer and Abdeen2008; Qouta et al., Reference Qouta, Punamäki and El Sarraj2008).

Contexts associated with indicators of positive outcomes in children

Given the destruction and trauma associated with political violence and armed conflict, it is logical that researchers have focused heavily on studying potentials for negative developmental outcomes (e.g., internalizing and externalizing symptoms) among affected children. Despite this logic, results from existing studies suggest the effects of political violence and armed conflict are not limited to negative outcomes. In recent years, a growing number of researchers have also explored potentials for positive outcomes and processes among children living in these contexts. Indicators of positive developmental processes, such as prosocial behaviors (Macksoud & Aber, Reference Macksoud and Aber1996), activism (Barber & Olsen, Reference Barber, Olsen and Barber2009), and other forms of civic engagement have been linked to youths' experience of political violence. Several theories have been proposed to explain why positive outcomes may occur in these circumstances. For example, Tedeschi and Calhoun's (Reference Tedeschi and Calhoun1996) model of posttraumatic growth asserts that struggling with the trauma can result in cognitive rebuilding, deliberate schema change, and new narrative about life. Vollhardt's (Reference Vollhardt2009) theory of altruism born of suffering suggests that negative life experiences can motivate individuals to help others who have also experienced adversities. Others have suggested that experiences of intergroup conflict may motivate youth to pull together with their ingroup members to make positive changes in their communities (Merrilees, Taylor, et al., Reference Merrilees, Taylor, Goeke-Morey, Shirlow, Cummings and Cairns2013).

Children, Political Violence, and Armed Conflict: A Move to a Process-Oriented, Social–Ecological Perspective

As observed by Dawes and Cairns (Reference Dawes and Cairns1998) over a decade and a half ago, researchers in the area of children and political violence have “counted enough symptoms.” Moreover, as we have discussed, this body of work has uncovered potentials for both positive and negative outcomes. Yet limited progress has been made toward addressing several crucial questions for understanding youth development in contexts of political violence and armed conflict: how and why do particular exposed youth arrive at particular psychosocial outcomes (i.e., mediating processes); and for whom and under what conditions do children reach these outcomes (i.e., moderating processes)? The time has thus arrived for a new generation of research from a process-oriented, social–ecological perspective in the area of children, political violence, and armed conflict. The possible face of such work can be conceptualized from a developmental psychopathology perspective that is concerned with identifying mediating and moderating processes (Cummings & Valentino, Reference Cummings, Valentino, Overton and Molenaar2015). According to this perspective, emerging directions in the study of children, political violence, and armed conflict might include (a) the explication of a broader causal net of factors that influence child adjustment (e.g., risk and resilience factors); (b) the identification of social contexts (e.g., familial, community, ethnic, and cultural) that influence causal processes and relations between various levels of these social contexts; and (c) the examination and testing of dynamic patterns of socioemotional, biological, cognitive, and other processes that underlie child outcomes (Cummings, Davies, & Campbell, Reference Cummings, Davies and Campbell2000, p. 37). These directions underscore the key point that the goal is to test relations between political violence, armed conflict, and child outcomes with greater rigor and precision. The following sections of this Introduction explore the role of context from a process-oriented, social–ecological perspective, as well as future directions in the development and testing of theories about the mechanisms underlying youth development in situations of political violence and armed conflict.

A Social–Ecological Perspective

The importance of examining the impact of multiple social–ecological levels in understanding the impact of political violence and armed conflict on child development has become increasingly clear (Cummings et al., Reference Cummings, Goeke-Morey, Merrilees, Taylor and Shirlow2014; Dubow, Huesmann, & Boxer, Reference Dubow, Huesmann and Boxer2009; Joshi & O'Donnell, Reference Joshi and O'Donnell2003; Sagi-Schwartz, Reference Sagi-Schwartz2008; Shaw, Reference Shaw2003). According to ecological systems theory (Bronfenbrenner, Reference Bronfenbrenner1979, Reference Bronfenbrenner1986; Cicchetti & Lynch, Reference Cicchetti and Lynch1993; Lynch & Cicchettti, Reference Lynch and Cicchetti1998), children develop within multiple nested contexts (e.g., family, school, community, and broader culture), with some levels of the social ecology more proximate than others to development processes. By incorporating multiple levels of the social ecology into research designs, a more comprehensive understanding of the effects of exposure to political violence and armed conflict on children can be achieved (Cummings, Goeke-Morey, Schermerhorn, Merrilees, & Cairns, Reference Cummings, Goeke-Morey, Schermerhorn, Merrilees and Cairns2009; Dubow et al., Reference Dubow, Huesmann and Boxer2009).

The social–ecological level within which children interact directly is the microsystem, including both family and community factors. In regard to family factors, parenting dynamics have been explored as possible mediators and/or moderators of children's psychosocial outcomes in the face of political violence. Whereas warm, supportive, nonpunitive parenting behaviors have been linked to more positive outcomes among exposed children, high levels of intrusive and psychological control have been associated with higher levels of psychological symptomology (Barber, Reference Barber1999; Dubow, Huesmann, et al., Reference Dubow, Huesmann, Boxer, Landau, Dvir, Shikaki and Ginges2012; Keresteš, Reference Keresteš2006; Punamäki, Reference Punamäki1997; Thabet, Ibraheem, Shivram, Millingen, & Vostanis, Reference Thabet, Ibraheem, Shivram, Van Milingen and Vostanis2009). Parental mental health and adjustment have likewise been identified as potentially associated with child well-being in contexts of political violence (Dubow, Huesmann, et al., Reference Dubow, Huesmann, Boxer, Landau, Dvir, Shikaki and Ginges2012; Joshi & O'Donnell, Reference Joshi and O'Donnell2003; Lynch, Reference Lynch2003; Shaw, Reference Shaw2003). In regard to the broader community, such factors may increase children's risk for psychosocial difficulties either directly or indirectly (e.g., by exacerbating family-level stressors). For example, violence in the community can have a spillover effect by increasing conflict within the family (e.g., Boxer et al., Reference Boxer, Huesmann, Dubow, Landau, Gvirsman, Shikaki and Ginges2013; Halpern, Reference Halpern2001). In contrast, family cohesion, emotional security within the family and community, and high levels of social support and acceptance have all been identified as key attenuators of the effects of exposure to violence on child adjustment (Betancourt, Brennan, Rubin-Smith, Fitzmaurice, & Gilman, Reference Betancourt, Brennan, Rubin-Smith, Fitzmaurice and Gilman2010; Cummings et al., Reference Cummings, Merrilees, Schermerhorn, Goeke-Morey and Cairns2011; O'Donnell, Schwab-Stone, & Muveed, Reference O'Donnell, Schwab-Stone and Muyeed2002; Peltonen, Qouta, El Sarraj, & Punamäki, Reference Peltonen, Qouta, El Sarraj and Punamäki2010).

An overarching social–ecological subsystem is the macrosystem, which contains broader cultural factors that set the stage for interpersonal and community dynamics (Bronfenbrenner, Reference Bronfenbrenner1979, p. 26). The macrosystem comprises culture and its institutional patterns. Such cultural components may be economic, social, or political in nature, and they give meaning to the systemic and individual interactions that they embody (e.g., ethnic, religious, and political identities and ideologies). It has been suggested that tensions at the macrosystem level may influence child adjustment by way of increasing violence in the microsystem (e.g., family, school, and community; see Boxer et al., Reference Boxer, Huesmann, Dubow, Landau, Gvirsman, Shikaki and Ginges2013). Another example of macrosystem effects is the impact of economic downturn on the experience of political violence. Political violence is more likely to negatively affect children from lower socioeconomic conditions (Cairns & Dawes, Reference Cairns and Dawes1996). Following the effects of macro-level economic shifts will surely impact children's experiences of political violence. In all, while the measurement of macrosystem factors poses multiple methodological challenges, this is nonetheless an essential future direction as researchers seek to understand the experiences of children exposed to violence in different geographical, societal, and political contexts.

Researchers are challenged to hypothesize which factors, processes, and pathways may affect particular groups of children exposed to political violence and armed conflict. As such, studies should be conducted at multiple social–ecological levels in order to test possible cross-level interrelations. This approach may capture a more comprehensive snapshot of the effects of exposure on child adjustment in multiple contexts. Nonetheless, simply identifying variables and contexts of interest, even at multiple levels, does not paint a complete picture. The hypothesized processes through which exposure to political violence and armed conflict affects children must be integrated into conceptual and theoretical frameworks and systematically tested.

Process-oriented research and the importance of theory

Process-oriented research aims to describe the patterns and processes that lead children to positive or negative outcomes within particular scenarios and developmental contexts (Cummings et al., Reference Cummings, Davies and Campbell2000, p. 82). Of note, causal factors for particular outcomes are not conceptualized as global or static “risk/resilience” variables that operate upon children within a vacuum. Rather, emphasis is placed on the dynamic interplay of socioemotional, cognitive, biological, and other processes that influence child interactions and functioning (Cichetti, Reference Cicchetti, Cicchetti and Cohen2006; Cicchetti & Cohen, Reference Cicchetti, Cohen, Cicchetti and Cohen1995; Masten & Tellegen, Reference Masten and Tellegen2012).

Guiding theoretical and/or conceptual models should reflect the interplay between dynamic processes and children's social–ecological contexts in shaping their outcomes in settings of political violence and armed conflict (Masten & Narayan, Reference Masten and Narayan2012). Previous research has documented what kinds of contexts and outcomes are associated with children's exposure to political violence. Moving forward, it will be critical to carefully construct and test theoretical models that investigate how and why (e.g., mediators), and for whom and when (e.g., moderators) children in particular contexts arrive at particular outcomes. This knowledge may be capitalized on to identify and support subsets of children who are at particularly high risk of negative outcomes, and to sensitively intervene in the lives of those who have already begun to show signs of maladjustment. Just as significantly, process-oriented research is needed to identify the dynamic processes and social–ecological contexts that shape positive outcomes that might be enhanced through interventions (Masten, Reference Masten2014).

Longitudinal research is necessary to examine these processes in real-life settings. That is, cross-sectional designs, while useful for identifying variables and relationships of interest, cannot uncover the processes that account for exposed children's outcomes. Multiwave longitudinal models, however, have the capacity to identify such processes, and to chart pathways of child development in contexts of political violence over time. Specifically, longitudinal models can uncover directional relations between the social contexts of political violence, mediating social–ecological and/or psychological processes, and positive and negative child outcomes. Longitudinal data also allows for tests of processes that happen both within and between people, and new methods of analysis allow for tests of different levels of effects. In other words, analyses incorporating random effects or multilevel models allow for the testing of effects at various levels such as the family level, the community level, or even the national level. The use of these tools greatly enhances our ability to understand the multiple levels of the social ecology and how and why individuals change over time.

Resilience as a process

A growing number of researchers have begun to document children's potential for resilience in contexts of political violence and armed conflict. Resilience may be defined as the capacity of a dynamic system to endure or recover from adverse circumstances that threaten its stability, viability, or development (Masten, Reference Masten2011, Reference Masten and Zelazo2012). In recent years, a number of studies have highlighted subsets of children who were functioning more normatively than expected postexposure, or who eventually returned to mostly normative functioning levels over time (for reviews, see Barber, Reference Barber2013; Barber & Doty, Reference Barber, Doty, Fernando and Ferrari2013). The coexistence of literature documenting various maladjustment outcomes among some children exposed to political violence, and resiliency in others, need not be viewed as contradictory; rather, it points to the fact that it is impossible to make conclusive, universal statements about the psychosocial effects of armed conflict on children (Barber, Reference Barber2013). As such, researchers have called for (a) a move beyond conceptual frameworks that assume widespread trauma and dysfunction, (b) the identification of protective factors and processes across multiple ecological levels, and (c) the utilization of this knowledge to inform prevention programs and interventions promoting positive outcomes among high-risk populations.

From the developmental psychopathology perspective (Cicchetti, Reference Cicchetti, Cicchetti and Cohen2006; Cummings & Valentino, Reference Cummings, Valentino, Overton and Molenaar2015), both risk and resilience are conceptualized as processes, or interactions between unique individuals and contexts (Luthar, Cicchetti, & Becker, Reference Luthar, Cicchetti and Becker2000; Masten, Reference Masten2001, Reference Masten2007). Individual outcomes vary based on type and dosage of exposure, age, and gender, among other factors. Children's families, peers, communities, and cultures may form adaptive systems (Masten, Reference Masten2001, Reference Masten2007). Commonly identified protective factors occurring in these systems include secure attachment relationships with caregivers, high levels of cognitive skills, self-regulation, and self-esteem/self-efficacy; personality factors (e.g., tendencies toward rumination), neurobiological traits; participation in nurturing institutions (e.g., school); and political ideology (Barber, Reference Barber and Barber2009; Dubow, Boxer, et al., Reference Dubow, Boxer, Huesmann, Landau, Dvir, Shikaki and Ginges2012; Masten & Narayan, Reference Masten and Narayan2012).

However, the protective effects of these factors may only be relevant to particular domains. That is, youth may demonstrate competent functioning within one context (e.g., home), but not in another (e.g., school) depending on the interplay of risk and resilience factors.

Transactional relations between the individual and environment

Within a social–ecological framework, relations between individuals and their environmental contexts are regarded as transactional; that is, the environment affects the individual and the individual affects the environment in a reciprocal process that evolves over time (Cicchetti, Reference Cicchetti, Cicchetti and Cohen2006). A variety of individual characteristics may shape the ways in which children exposed to political violence and armed conflict interact with different elements of their environments. At the levels of cognitive and psychological functioning, evidence suggests that emotional regulation abilities, sensitization to conflict, and biological stress reactions may mediate and/or moderate relations between exposure to political violence and armed conflict and children's psychosocial outcomes (Dubow, Huesmann, et al., Reference Dubow, Huesmann, Boxer, Landau, Dvir, Shikaki and Ginges2012; Lavi & Slone, Reference Lavi and Slone2011; Qouta, Punamäki, & El Sarraj, Reference Qouta, Punamäki and El Sarraj2001). Children's ideological commitments have also been investigated, with some mixed results (e.g., Punamäki, Reference Punamäki1996). For example, high levels of in-group cohesion and social identity can increase child aggression toward outgroup members, but can also buffer them from the mental health consequences of political violence exposure. (e.g., Merrilees, Cairns, et al., Reference Merrilees, Cairns, Taylor, Goeke-Morey, Shirlow and Cummings2013; Merrilees, Taylor, et al., Reference Merrilees, Taylor, Goeke-Morey, Shirlow, Cummings and Cairns2013). Finally, as previously noted, child characteristics such as gender and age have been frequently explored, also with mixed results.

A variety of additional individual factors may also relate to children's vulnerability for negative psychosocial outcomes. For example, at the individual level, developmental stage and age at the time of exposure may be influential (e.g., Green et al., Reference Green, Korol, Grace, Vary, Leonard, Gleser and Smitson-Cohen1991; Vizek-Vidovi, Kuterovac-Jagodic, & Arambasic, Reference Vizek-Vidovic, Kuterovac-Jagodic and Arambasic2000). This may be partially attributable to the role of developmental stage and age in children's experiences of political violence and armed conflict (e.g., perceptions and cognitive capacities to understand danger) and engagement in the events at hand (e.g., political activism, sectarian antisocial behavior, and child soldiers). The role of gender in shaping children's experiences of and reactions to political violence and armed conflict has also been explored. For example, Betancourt, Borisova, de la Soudiere, and Williamson (Reference Betancourt, Borisova, de la Soudiere and Williamson2011) reported that female former child soldiers demonstrated lower psychosocial functioning compared to male former child soldiers. These differences may in part reflect the increased risk for girls for experiencing rape and other forms of sexual assault. Moreover, girls were found to evidence higher rates of improvement across a 4-year follow-up (Betancourt, Newnham, et al., Reference Betancourt, Newnham, McBain and Brennan2013).

Translational Implications: Improving Prevention and Intervention

Methodologically rigorous research has the greatest potential to be translated into efficacious interventions for children who have been exposed to political violence and armed conflict. Too often, promising studies in this area have been conducted in the field, but have not been applied to the settings in which they were conducted in order to improve prevention and intervention efforts. Likewise, much basic research in this area has failed to be drawn into larger conceptual frameworks with the potential to cogently inform future applications for the samples of children that were studied.

In order to develop and test basic theories with application potential for children exposed to political violence and armed conflict, it is important for researchers to be increasingly willing to join forces with experts both within and outside of their field. Research guided by a social–ecological perspective is likely to identify risk and protective factors at multiple ecological levels for youth exposed to political violence and armed conflict. Collaborative, interdisciplinary efforts will be necessary in order to disentangle the processes by which these factors lead to child maladjustment or positive development, and to develop targeted, developmentally and culturally appropriate interventions (Masten & Narayan, Reference Masten and Narayan2012). Although not all studies of children and political violence need be explicitly geared toward intervention development or evaluation, it is important that all basic research in this area have clear and demonstrable potential to better the lives of those vulnerable samples of those being studied (Cicchetti & Toth, Reference Cicchetti and Toth2006). These steps will be critical toward advancing current knowledge pertaining to children and political violence, and developing and disseminating efficacious interventions.

Special Section Purpose: Research Groups Employing Social–Ecological, Process-Oriented Perspectives on Youth and Political Violence and Armed Conflict

This Special Section aims to provide models for these new directions in research and application. The goal is to contribute to the body of research that employs a social–ecological, process-oriented perspective while systematically and longitudinally testing well-articulated theories of children and political violence and armed conflict. The process of constructing empirically guided, well-articulated theoretical models that can be tested longitudinally entails significant costs (e.g., time and funding) and methodological challenges (for an overview, see Cummings et al., Reference Cummings, Davies and Campbell2000, pp. 82–86). In this Special Section, we will present research from four research groups that have begun to move in these important directions; below, the specific advancements presented in this volume will be highlighted and previewed.

The intergenerational impact of war on Sierra Leonean youth

More than a decade after the end of a protracted (1991–2002) civil war that led to the deaths of more than 50,000 people in Sierra Leone, many postconflict tensions and challenge remain, from widespread poverty, to the reintegration of child soldiers and lingering acts of armed violence. In recent years, Theresa Betancourt and colleagues (e.g., Betancourt, Agnew-Blais, Gilman, Williams, & Ellis, Reference Betancourt, Agnew-Blais, Gilman, Williams and Ellis2010; Betancourt et al., Reference Betancourt, Brennan, Rubin-Smith, Fitzmaurice and Gilman2010; Betancourt, McBain, Newnham, & Brennan, Reference Betancourt, McBain, Newnham and Brennan2012) have utilized an ecological developmental framework to examine the intergenerational transmission of both violence and resilience among affected youth, families, and communities in this region. Following the war's end, the group examined the psychosocial adjustment of 529 Sierra Leonean youth, many of whom were former child soldiers, across three biennial waves (ages 10 to 17 years at baseline assessment). Results uncovered significant relations between specific war experiences (e.g., harming others) and postconflict risk factors (e.g., stigma) to exposed youths' psychosocial outcomes; protective postconflict factors (e.g., community acceptance) were also identified.

As part of their ongoing work in this area, Betancourt and colleagues aim to (a) elucidate the longitudinal effects of exposure to political violence during youth on adult mental health and family functioning; (b) uncover the mechanisms by which both violence and resilience are transmitted between generations; and (c) identify parental factors, family processes, and societal mechanisms that might be targeted in order to improve the outcomes of individuals affected by political violence.

Political violence and children in Northern Ireland

The late 20th century in Northern Ireland was marked by a period of conflict known as “The Troubles.” Disagreement between primarily Protestant Unionists/Loyalists and primarily Catholic Nationalist/Republicans over the region's constitutional status led to eruptions of violent conflict that left over 3,500 dead. The Belfast Good Friday Agreement of 1998 marked a critical step toward peace; however, serious sectarian tensions and sporadic violence persist. E. Mark Cummings and colleagues are currently conducting a longitudinal study in postaccord Belfast, examining pathways between political violence exposure, nonsectarian crime, family functioning, and adolescent adjustment. The study aims to elucidate the interpersonal and psychological processes that underlie relations between members of the city's adjacent but segregated communities, and employs emotional security theory as a guiding framework. Notable findings thus far have revealed (a) mediating effects of emotional insecurity about both the community and family on the effects of political violence on youth maladjustment, (b) differential effects of exposure to sectarian versus nonsectarian violence on youth outcomes, and (c) a variety of dynamic risk and resilience processes at play for youth exposed to violence across multiple social–ecological contexts (e.g., Cummings et al., Reference Cummings, Merrilees, Schermerhorn, Goeke-Morey and Cairns2011, Reference Cummings, Goeke-Morey, Merrilees, Taylor and Shirlow2014; Goeke-Morey et al., Reference Goeke-Morey, Taylor, Cairns, Merrilees, Shirlow and Cummings2013).

The Israeli–Palestinian exposure to violence study

The modern Israeli–Palestinian conflict has been under way since the middle of the 20th century; rates of sectarian violence, poverty, and refugee displacement remain high. L. Rowell Huesmann, Paul Boxer, Eric Dubow, Jeremy Gringes, Simha Landau, and Khalil Shikaki serve as the Co-Principal Investigators of an ongoing longitudinal study of the effects of extreme, persistent exposure to ethnic–political violence on the psychosocial adjustment of youth in these regions (for a theoretical overview, see Dubow et al., Reference Dubow, Huesmann and Boxer2009). The study utilizes a cohort-sequential sampling design, tracking 600 youth aged 8, 11, and 14 at baseline assessment across four annual waves. Two main hypotheses have been advanced: first, that individual differences (e.g., cognitive, emotional, and self-processes) among youth exposed to extreme political violence will be linked to negative psychological and behavioral outcomes; and second, that these effects will be strongly moderated by both peer and parent–child relationships.

The results thus far have coalesced to underscore the additive effects of exposure to political violence across multiple contexts on youths' development of posttraumatic stress symptoms and aggressive behavior, to identify protective effects for youth exposed to political violence, to examine the development of ideological beliefs and negative stereotypes toward the out-group, and to support a social–cognitive–ecological framework conceptualization of the effects of political violence on youth adjustment (e.g., Boxer et al., Reference Boxer, Huesmann, Dubow, Landau, Gvirsman, Shikaki and Ginges2013; Dubow, Boxer, et al., Reference Dubow, Boxer, Huesmann, Landau, Dvir, Shikaki and Ginges2012; Dubow, Huesmann, & Boxer, Reference Dubow, Huesmann and Boxer2009; Dubow, Huesmann, et al., Reference Dubow, Huesmann, Boxer, Landau, Dvir, Shikaki and Ginges2012; Dvir Gvirsman et al., Reference Dvir Gvirsman, Huesmann, Dubow, Landau, Boxer and Shikakiin press; Niwa et al., Reference Niwa, Boxer, Dubow, Huesmann, Landau, Shikaki and Dvir Gvirsmanin press).

Impact evaluation of a teacher-targeted intervention in the Democratic Republic of Congo

The nearly 5-year-long Second Congo War ended in 2003, having led to the deaths of over 5.4 million individuals and the displacement of millions more across nine African nations. Nonetheless, millions of Congolese are still faced with poverty, malnutrition, and ongoing violence at the hands of armed groups that control certain regions of the Republic. A program designed to enhance the well-being of Congolese schoolchildren growing up in three conflict-ridden provinces of the eastern Congo is currently being longitudinally evaluated by J. Lawrence Aber and colleagues (Torrente, Aber, Shivshanker, Anan, & Bundervoet, Reference Torrente, Aber, Shivshanker, Annan and Bundervoet2011; Torrente, Aber, Witteveen, et al., Reference Torrente, Aber, Witteveen, Gupta, Johnston, Shivshanker and Bundervoet2012). The program, the Opportunities for Equitable Access to Quality Basic Education (OPEQ), targets the quality of education received by over 480,000 youth in hopes of improving their academic and psychosocial outcomes. Key OPEQ components include (a) an integrated curriculum that integrates socioemotional learning models with high-quality reading and math curricula; (b) Teacher Training and Coaching, a school-based collaborative professional support system; and (c) community mobilization via the establishment of school management committees and parent–teacher associations. The evaluation study is employing a cluster-randomized model to assess the academic and psychosocial outcomes of youth engaged in OPEQ-enhanced classrooms over 3 years.

A New Generation of Research: Children and Political Violence in Multiple Societal Contexts

Children growing up in settings of political violence and armed conflict are arguably among the most vulnerable and high-risk worldwide. Child casualties in these settings are on the rise, and those children who survive are often faced with experiences of trauma and deprivation that threaten their long-term well-being. Conducting rigorous research in these settings is challenging for many methodological, conceptual, and practical reasons. Equally, or perhaps even more challenging, is translating research findings into effective, evidence-based interventions that can be implemented at large scales among affected populations. Yet the latter is imperative to promoting healthy child development and community adjustment, and to preventing the intergenerational perpetuation of violent conflicts. Future generations of researchers must therefore build on the work of the last few decades, and establish sounder bases for doing rigorous research and translational work in contexts of political violence and armed conflict.

It would be impossible and impractical for all researchers in this area to focus their efforts on major longitudinal studies such as those outlined in this Introduction. However, it is important that a greater number do so, backed by the support of the colleagues from whose work they will draw inspiration. Accordingly, future research in this area is encouraged to include studies that rigorously test risk and resilience processes underlying diverse outcomes across multiple social–ecological contexts. The findings that are accumulated as a result of such work and that are communicated across research teams may ultimately be utilized to improve the lives of vulnerable children and their families (Barber, Reference Barber2013; Masten, Reference Masten2014; Masten & Narayan, Reference Masten and Narayan2012).

This Special Section is intended to support future methodological and conceptual advances in basic research and intervention studies on this vitally important topic for the sake of the well-being and adjustment of the great numbers of children and families worldwide affected by political violence and armed conflict. Thus, consistent with a developmental psychopathology perspective (Cicchetti, Reference Cicchetti, Cicchetti and Cohen2006), in this Special Section we explore empirical and conceptual foundations for new directions for cutting-edge research employing process-oriented, social–ecological perspectives, and longitudinal research designs. The hope is to advance the possibilities for a new generation of research setting the stage for advanced theory, research, prevention, and intervention efforts for children exposed to political violence and armed conflict.

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