Youth and Mental Health

Nearly half of refugees world-wide are children under the age of 18. How might the experience of being a refugee affect a child’s development and growth? The range of experiences that refugee children have had can vary widely, as can the ways in which such experiences affect development. For some children, parents were able to protect them from the horrors of war and displacement; for these children the challenges associated with navigating different homes and host cultures may be the greatest stress. For other children, the trauma and violence of war may have affected them directly, resulting in them witnessing or even personally experiencing violence. Many children may have experienced a disruption in what we call the “scaffolding of childhood”—the basic experiences we expect to be in place for children to develop and thrive, such as access to schools, health care, adequate food and water, safe neighborhoods, and intact families.

Once children resettle in a host country new challenges often await them. Children may need to integrate into school settings that are unfamiliar and sometimes academically beyond their educational background. Children must learn a new language and culture, and frequently must navigate between a markedly different home and host-country culture. At times their religion, ethnicity, or race may make them targets of harassment and misunderstanding within the school setting.

Such challenges and disruption can have diverse and profound effects on the developing child. Some youth show remarkable resilience. Others show transient problems associated with acculturation stress, such as being unfamiliar with basic school rules or lacking socially-appropriate problem solving strategies. Still others develop mental health problems associated with the trauma and stress they have experienced, such as depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Sometimes these mental disorders manifest themselves in behavior problems, withdrawal, or physical symptoms.

There are many ways in which families, health care providers, community leaders, and teachers can build upon the strengths of children and families to help support the healthy adjustment of refugee youth in resettlement. Together we can help refugee children thrive.