Although children do not typically fight in wars, they can spend a lifetime recovering from them.
“Traumatized children become traumatized adults,” said Dr. Veronica Slootsky, a psychiatrist who, through her work with Physicians for Human Rights, studies children with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Sloostsky, a resident at George Washington University, spoke last Friday at an event sponsored by EMET, the Endowment for Middle East Truth. She was invited to speak following a June 2 Congressional briefing on the suffering of Palestinian children in Gaza, said EMET President Sarah Stern. She called the earlier briefing sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), “very biased.”
That hearing, in which Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and Rabbi Brant Rosen of the AFSC spoke, focused on Palestinian children who throw rocks at police and soldiers and that the AFSC believes children are mistreated by Israeli police.
In last week’s EMET presentation, the focus was on the children of Sderot, who experience rocket attacks as a part of daily life.
While PTSD is similar in adults and children, the trauma can be more damaging to young people who must cope with stress and fears while their brain is still developing, Dr. Slootsky said.
Between 2000 and 2008, while the southern Israeli city of Sderot was under frequent attack, several studies were conducted on children there, and Dr. Slootsky referred to two of these studies frequently during her talk. Both studies were conducted by researchers at Ben Gurion University of the Negev.
Nearly half the seventh- and eighth-graders in Sderot had PTSD, meaning they were still having serious problems six months after living through a trauma, according to a Ben Gurion study, Dr. Slootsky told about 25 people at the Rayburn House Office Building.
Children who experience occasional rocket attacks tend to have acute stress. Those in Sderot often suffer from chronic stress, she said. Children with acute stress tend to have higher anxiety, but those with chronic stress have more psychosomatic symptoms including headaches and stomachaches.
She attributed this in part to the fact that those experiencing occasional bombing often talk about it while those who live under constant attack tend to suppress their feelings.
In acute situations, the best thing may be to take young people away from
the battleground temporarily. That, however, wouldn’t be helpful to children suffering from chronic stress as they would just be returning to the same scary situation. For them, Dr. Slootsky said, a strong, supportive family is the best resource.
When young people are taught that bad situations can be managed, their anxiety is reduced, she said. Feeling a sense of control over one’s environment is helpful to the Jewish teens of Sderot.
She noted that the Bedouins living near Sderot rely on strong social and religious support when dealing with stress, Dr. Slootsky said.
While medication can’t adequately help children with PTSD, cognitive
behavioral therapy can help, she said. With this treatment, children can learn not to fear the everyday objects and noises they connect with bombing, like the slamming of a door.
Dr. Slootsky also discussed the need for the Israeli government to recognize that the people who live near Gaza are a
diverse group, including new immigrants from North Africa, he Middle East and the former Soviet Union, many of whom do not speak Hebrew fluently and may be unaware of programs to help them.
She said that people’s belief that they are not being treated well by the government adds to their problems.