In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section War

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • War and Refugees
  • Children’s Lives in Conflict Zones

Childhood Studies War
David M. Rosen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0029


The study of children and war developed in the shadow of World War II and the Holocaust, in which millions of children were killed. The deaths of so many children in war raised the consciousness of the international community to the plight of children in situations of armed conflict. Not surprisingly, much of the scholarly and policy literature is dominated by concerns about the need to protect children from both the immediate and long-term consequences of war. In recent years, however, there has been some pushback against this approach, with many studies focusing on the agency and resilience of children, even in violent circumstances. As a result, research on war-affected children is characterized by a tension over whether children are best viewed through the lens of victimhood, or as resilient agents. These two perspectives, however, are not mutually exclusive: Children can be victimized by war and also remain remarkably resilient under extraordinarily dangerous and difficult circumstances. The effect of these two distinct perspectives on the same phenomenon can most readily be seen in studies of child soldiers, one of the most contentious problems of modern armed conflict. For many years, discussions of child soldiers were dominated by advocacy and policy literature that promoted banning the use of child soldiers. Generally, such work assumes that all persons under age eighteen are vulnerable and easily exploited and that the issue of child soldiers derives from the criminal exploitation of defenseless children by unscrupulous adults. The vast majority of child soldiers are teenagers, and in analyzing their involvement in armed combat, the advocacy literature tends to ignore their agency and political motivation or the historical circumstances in which they become soldiers. Scholars should be aware that though analyses may be shaped by a policy agenda, the data gathered for these studies can nonetheless often be of value. However, researchers need to be careful and intellectually critical when using such data, since advocacy literature contains many stated and unstated prescriptive policy presumptions. In recent years, anthropologists, historians, sociologists, and others have published more nuanced studies of the problem, taking into account the circumstances surrounding recruitment, the patterns of recruitment, the agency and subjective experiences of children, the distinction between children and adolescents, and cross-cultural differences in the meaning of childhood. These studies provide a more complex understanding of the role of children and youth in armed forces and groups. Similar issues are being considered in the study of other aspects of children’s lives in situations of conflict. One frequent result of war is that children are forcibly displaced from their families, homes, communities, and countries. As with studies of child soldiers, studies of these displaced children range from those that detail the plight of youngsters and the need for local, national, and international intervention to studies that describe the ability of young people to build new lives, create new relationships, and shape political, religious, and other social institutions to meet their own needs.

General Overviews

These studies examine the range of problems faced by children in situations of armed conflict. Machel 2001 is a revised version of a report authored for the United Nations on children and armed conflict. The report was widely disseminated and was a key document in focusing the attention of civil society and the wider international community on the need to protect women and children during times of war and to provide developmental and humanitarian help in conflict zones. While it is dedicated to children, the report is primarily a broad prescriptive text that focuses on the abuse and victimization of children during wartime and international legal and political mechanisms that can be used to protect them. In contrast, the essays collected in Boyden and de Berry 2004 provide detailed localized examinations of displacement, the psychological well-being of individuals and communities and the destruction of community networks, norms, and cultural resources in a way that takes into account the subjective meaning of these experiences to children. The book clearly advocates the position that solutions to the problems of war and displacement that derive from local experiences and that take into account the subjectivities of children and youth may clash with those proffered by international agencies and institutions. Boothby, et al. 2006 focuses primarily on the social and psychological issues confronting children and youth as a result of conflict. They also show that different children’s experiences of war vary greatly, so that efforts to extend help to war affected children should not be based upon general assumptions about children’s needs. Dupuy and Peters 2010 provides a basic sourcebook, as well as a very helpful survey of many of the issues that affect children in wartime. Pederson and Simmerfelt 2007 examines and evaluates key concepts we use in framing our understanding of the issues.

  • Boothby, Neil, Alison Strang, and Michael G. Wessells, eds. A World Turned Upside Down: Social Ecological Approaches to Children in War Zones. Sterling, VA: Kumarian, 2006.

    NNNA collection of essays by psychologists who have worked with children in war zones in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Europe. Emphasis is upon the resilience of children in war zones and the need to study the psychological impact of war and violence in context so as to avoid over-pathologizing children’s responses to war.

  • Boyden, Jo, and Joanna De Berry, eds. Children and Youth on the Front Line: Ethnography, Armed Conflict and Displacement. London: Berghahn, 2004.

    NNNA key collection of essays that emphasizes detailed ethnographic investigations and young people’s own narratives in understanding the impact of war on children’s lives. Special attention is paid to evaluating research methodologies in the study of children in conflict zones.

  • Dupuy, Kendra E., and Krijn Peters. War and Children: A Reference Handbook. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2010.

    NNNA general reference book that provides a broad overview of the different ways in which armed conflict affects children and youth. Includes discussions of the recruitment of child soldiers, disarmament, demobilization, and the reintegration of demobilized children soldiers into postwar communities.

  • Machel, Graca. The Impact of War on Children. London: Hurst and Company, 2001.

    NNNThe most widely cited policy treatise on children and war. The book is based on the author’s 1996 report to the United Nations General Assembly and has become the key document for NGOs and other advocacy groups in discussions of children and war.

  • Pederson, Jon, and Tone Simmerfelt. “Studying Children in Armed Conflict: Data Production, Social Indicators: An Analysis.” Social Indicators Research 84 (2007): 251–270.

    DOI: 10.1007/s11205-007-9117-3

    NNNA much-needed review of social indicators relevant to research on children who are affected by armed conflict and how such research can be carried out. Discusses the technical and methodological problems associated with these issues, especially the problems of distinguishing among politically contentious definitions of war-affected children.

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