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The war acquires comparatively little significance for children so long as it only threatens their lives, disturbs their material comfort, or cuts their food rations. It becomes enormously significant the moment it breaks up family life and uproots the first emotional attachments of the child within the family group.Anna Freud and Dorothy Burlingham, 19431
Being shelled is not the most upsetting thing that can happen to a child. Living in safety but being separated from your parents can be equally or more upsetting and have enduring effects on your mental well-being. I relearnt Freud and Burlingham’s1 important lesson when researching the psychological effects of the Bosnian War (1992–1995) on children. Fikreta explained how:
…We stayed at our grandparents’ house for four years. …I cried often because there was a lot of shooting there (Gorazde), so I was afraid something could happen to my parents. …when I spoke with them I started to cry as soon as I heard their voices. Days passed, I was sad and nothing could make me happy.2
She continued to feel unwell after the war, as did other children evacuated away from their parents. When I followed up 14 of those children 20 years later, including some who had suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in 1998, the only one whose mental health was still problematic was a Serbian girl who had spent the war separated from her parents in Belgrade. She felt nervous, insecure and unhappy, and saw this as partly related to being forced to live away from her parents. Thus, she had given up a university course and returned to her home town to live with her family: I am filling in holes. I am trying to make up what I missed.2
Children are better off with those they love is the first of 10 …
Funding None declared.
Competing interests None declared.
Patient consent Not required.
Provenance and peer review Commissioned; internally peer reviewed.
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