When soldiers return home to their families with unresolved wartime experiences in tow, their children, whose sensory systems are porous, see and feel their unarticulated terror and rage. Since families are generally not included in re-entry or transition, which is thoroughly inadequate in any case, children of veterans have no way to sort through what they absorb and hold non-verbally. It is therefore not surprising that the incidence of autism, learning disorders and sensory challenges are so high in these children, even outdistancing the now epidemiological proportions in the general population.
My Personal Experience
When my father returned from World War II with an exacerbated head injury he was full of indiscriminate rage and had no capacity or guidance to control or organize his reactions. I was swept into the force of his unstable behavior like a small passenger on the rickety boat of my unstable family, and tossed in a ferocious storm of unresolved trauma.
In my determination to survive and sustain myself I was driven inward to divert my acute sensitivities elsewhere and became intensely creative and highly dissociative. I can recollect that now, as an adult, and try to put together the pieces of the broken puzzle I became, but as a little child that was impossible. I felt utterly abandoned. As an adolescent, I found myself oddly attracted to violence, protest and self-hatred. These obsessions escalated into incomprehensible compulsions and I put myself repeatedly in harm’s way, like an enlisted soldier. Violence encircled me like a strange comfort. It took me a long time to disengage and realize that I was re-enacting my father’s presence in my life as a way to find him. This is how cycles of violence are perpetuated. It is the responsibility of people who can decipher this to take the burden of this transference off the shoulders of small children, for their own benefit but also for the salvation of society.
Relay Stations for the Re-enactment of Violence
The magnitude of need for the children of war is so enormous that I am compelled to cultivate a community devoted to this service. The growing numbers of children burdened with the horrors of war are voiceless and I am calling upon the adults who know this to become their voice. These children are relay stations for the re-enactment of violence, either towards themselves or others, without consciously choosing this path but by the force of physiology and epigenetic influences.
If you are a parent imagine your own child in the home of a veteran or soldier, male or female, harboring unresolved shock. How could your child survive if no one recognized her need or mirrored back the possibility of guidance to sort through the enormous and inevitable sensory overload that this circumstance creates? Knowing your child as you do, what would you offer him and how would you attend to the magnitude of need created by being in the presence of a violence beyond the knowledge of a child? If this was your child’s home, her daily and inescapable environment, how would you educate her to develop and learn, to grow despite this presence, and to make sense of it in her world? These are some of the simplest questions I believe we have to ask ourselves in order to develop a perspective on what to provide for the children of war. We have to see their experiences with their own eyes and with the kind of intimacy we would share with our own children.
Our Obligation to Act
Children are organically apprentices to the adults around them. They yearn for inclusion and co-participation and they rarely, if ever, have the language to communicate this basic need. Children make choices with their muscles. They do not make decisions with their logical minds. The coupling of their muscular, innate apprenticeship with the presence of violence spawns a lineage of destruction. This, of course, is not true in all cases; but even if it is true in some we cannot ignore it. We are obligated to step in and act as forces for other, more positive options. If there had been one person available to do that for me as a youth I do not believe I would have been as drawn to violence as I was. My violence, towards myself and later towards others, was an expression of my desperation and loneliness. I cannot abandon the children of war the way I was abandoned.
I believe that those of us who are capable must make a stand for compassion for these children and give them a reason to respect life so that they do not succumb to the forces of violence or the values of destruction. We have to fight against this contamination that infects them and spreads like a contagion, just as we would fight against any other disease.
I call upon all individuals interested in the welfare of veterans and their families, as I have with members and partners of the Charter for Compassion, to develop a curriculum, a manifesto, a dedicated directive and a plan of action to create a cadre of stewards for the children of war and to act on their behalf. I look forward not only to your comments, but to the actions we can take as a collective. To become more involved, please sign up for the free Healthful Life Strategies newsletter to receive more information in the future.
Dr. Stephanie Mines is a psychologist whose unique understanding comes from her academic research as well as her extensive work in the field. Her stories of personal transformation have led many listeners to become deeply committed to the healing journey. Dr. Mines understands shock from every conceivable perspective. She has investigated it as a survivor, a professional, a healthcare provider, and as a trainer of staffs of institutions and agencies. Meet Stephanie.