WAYWARD AND FANCIFUL: Rethinking children of war

Truth is, I avoid the CRC. And it isn't because of something the CRC did. But 22 years ago in UP Diliman, I enrolled in Filipino Psychology and my efforts earned me my very first Incomplete. We were required to raise funds for the benefit of the fledgling CRC, a course requirement that I had serious issues with. Well intentioned as the cause was, what had raising money got to do with whether one deserved to pass or not? I was young and I had yet to learn to compartmentalize my issues.

Usually, too, I avoid speaking in public on issues that have unresolved legal and political dimensions. Gabriela, Kabiba, and CRC, as we know, are involved in the Grecil Buya case, which I had been writing about in the last few weeks. Many momentous events have transpired since I first wrote about Grecil, and as my articles have made my position clear on the matter, it is heartening to know that people recognize why I have to remain unaligned in the interest of providing ethical professional help to the family and preserving my objectivity as a media practitioner.

It was probably unavoidable that Tuesday's discussions would touch on Grecil's case. However, I was assured that the input expected of me was on the general nature of the psychology of children who have experienced and are experiencing war.

I find it commendable that despite being publicly pilloried sometimes and accused even of further victimizing child victims to serve their political ends, civil society groups continue to doggedly work for the interest of children. Gabriela, Kabiba, and CRC have through the years put their money where their mouth is when it comes to protecting the Filipino child. I salute their countless volunteers on the ground who risk life and limb sometimes and generously extend overstretched resources just to help bring about a better life situation for distressed children. This is more than what the rest of us have been able to do.

We all got a surprise when Maj. Medel Aguilar of the 5th Civil Relations Group showed up at the forum. It is very, very rare for someone from the AFP to engage the public discourse on human rights in general, and especially on matters where AFP conduct is called to question.

On the issue of children of war, Caloy and I allowed ourselves to be our age. In our forty years in this country, we have never known a time when there was no war or the imminent threat of it. Forty years old, and Caloy has moved from being a firebrand (well, he doesn't smoke anymore) enough to wearily entertain the wish for a more humane war. Forty years old and I'm still a smoking termagant sometimes. To my mind, war is a lot of things. Sometimes it is necessary, sometimes it is justifiable. Never is it humane. So tell me, is there a humane way to kill?

In these forty years, all the sides that propagate war or play in its theater have spoken, yet the children have remained silent, for who indeed speaks for the children?

Children of war experience geographical dislocation, loss of social support, and disruption of family life and normal routine, often in a radically devastating manner. An adult would find that situation destabilizing at the very least. How much more the child? It would be to the interest of the child to be given professional help in processing his war experience and for his family life to normalize at the soonest possible time. In the Philippines, however, this is easier said than done.

To begin with, there are contending paradigms in how experts view children's experience of war trauma and how best to process it. Is war trauma like a terminal illness — in which case it scars the child for life whatever you do — or is it like a virulent flu that devastates one for some time and yet could actually be wrestled to the ground such that one can move on and be a productive, empowered adult in the future? Are children of war walking time bombs that would propagate the culture of war, are they victims that would eventually end up filling a role in the cycle of abuse, or are they emerging creative and rational individuals who can benefit from efforts at rehabilitation?

My bias is indeed for the latter. As a psychologist, I work on the assumption that most children are resilient and that with the right intervention, traumatic experiences could be put in perspective and overcome. But psychosocial interventions ought to recognize individual differences. There are no set menus for dealing with war trauma. Sociocultural factors and the complexity of the developmental processes impact on coping and resilience. In this way, the relationship between the stressor and the outcome depends on many factors, to include but not limited to the child's previous experience, perception of the event, coping skills, and social support.

In traumatic situations, high emotions adversely affect memory-making. And because children have yet to perfect reality-testing, it often is the case that memories of war experience are shrouded in shadows where demons lurk and grow to terrifying proportions, leaving the child trapped helplessly in the deep dark past. These demons have to be exorcised before they set in and gain power to debilitate the child for life. In the light of day, the scene of trauma should be seen for what it is — that something bad did indeed happen there, but that is now in the past.


Then, too, the human being is an emotional creature before he becomes rational. Children are more receptive to emotional undertones. Caregivers should be careful about adversely sending out emotional messages that actually heighten the child's fears and confusion. Parents worriedly whispering in the dark, fearful consultations with lawyers, verbal warnings that prohibit the display of certain behaviors, and even just parental display of helplessness or tension are post-traumatic situations fraught with emotional undertones. An emotional creature reacts in an emotional way. The unthinking conduct of adults sometimes contributes to the child's emotional reactivity.

To hasten rehabilitation, the child should ideally be situated in a secure environment when he could again be a child. He needs room to run and the freedom to express. He needs the day-to-day routine that allows him to know for sure what is going to happen next. He needs the strong presence of parents who are able to meet his physical and emotional needs and provide sound guidance. In particular, a child's social adjustment after the experience of trauma is strongly tied to the mother's coping skills.

However, in many war-afflicted families, there is a delay before these family conditions are met. As adults deal with their own fears and with the exigencies of transition in the aftermath of war experience, they often become unavailable to the child at a time when they are needed most.

It is a given among child rights workers that in order to help the child, first we must help the family. If we can just find it in our hearts to help shore up the security of families in distress and empower them to again take control of their lives, we would all be helping to bring about the kind of situation ideal for the child's rehabilitation.

But I do recognize that even that is an iffy proposition. We can never know for sure. Some respond well, and some don't. So who's to say which paradigm applies best? The jury is still out on that one.

What we have though in Mindanao is an endless list of potential subjects to try out our pet theories. And as ideology-backed offensives get to heat up all across the island group, it looks that list will get longer before the summer is over.

(Wayward and Fanciful is Gail Ilagan's column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. Ilagan teaches Social Justice, Family Sociology, Theories of Socialization and Psychology at the Ateneo de Davao University where she is also the associate editor of Tambara. You may send comments to gail.ilagan@gmail.com. "Send at the risk of a reply," she says.)