On countless occasions we have heard the expression ‘children are the future’ but rarely we have stopped to think about what the meaning of this expression really implies.
It implies that everything that affects our children in their first years of life leaves a deep and indelible impression that will mark their early development, their later perception of life, their interaction with the world and finally the influence that they themselves will exercise on their children and on society in general.
We live in a globalized world. It’s no longer ‘my children’ and ‘their children’. It’s OUR children. A child is the vessel of our teachings, the key to the perpetuation of our species, the only extension of our mortality and our only chance for EVOLUTION.
Therefore, what kind of future are we imprinting into our children?
Having to cope with long raging wars and other physical and psychological abuse our seed grows into adults that, just like us, will continue to engage in war and abuse of their social and organic environment in a continuous cycle which, unlike the geometrical figure or the natural flow, does have an ending, and it is not a happy one.
The world is at war with our children, for it seems that there’s no power in the planet that can stop killing the very spirit that is worth preserving: the joy of living, pure innocence. And violence, as we know, only engenders more violence.
We have the privilege to interview, on the subject of the psychological development of our children, Dr. Muthanna Samara, whose varied research has been cited by our colleagues at the BBC, Guardian, Times, Telegraph, amongst others, as well as specialised medical websites.
A chartered psychologist, Dr. MUTHANNA SAMARA joined Kingston University in 2010. The general focus of his research is on the social and emotional development of children (ADHD, Bullying at home/school, Cyberbullying, Children of War, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in Children…)
In June 2012 he secured a grant from the Quatar National Research Fund for a new research project on cyber bullying. He is the lead principal investigator on a three-year comparative study of cyber bullying in Qatari and UK schools, the findings of which he hopes will be used to help establish legal regulations around the issue and eventually to find ways to help prevent it.
WONDERLANCER: Dr. Samara, thank you again for participating in this interview, it’s a pleasure to count with your expertise and wealth of knowledge.
Your research and specialty studies span from Bullying and ADHD to the subject of Children of War. In the years that you have dedicated to the study of psychological development of children, have you identified any specific area in which major change, whether positive or negative, has been taking place?
DR. MUTHANNA SAMARA: The past decade has seen intensive and massive research for example in the areas of bullying and premature infants, which will further the development of intervention programmes in both these areas and that is really a very huge positive change. Although in a sense the more research is done, the more is discovered that needs to be done. For example the consequences of victimisation, and those in war zones, are extreme in terms of developing mental health and psychological problems and that needs to be taken seriously. Also, in one side you can see that human beings and governments do support research that deals with improving the wellbeing of children but in the same time they destroy the happiness and well-being of children by creating more wars and hatred and as you said in the introduction you feel sometimes that the world is at war with our children, while we are trying to protect them and make them happy.
WONDERLANCER: How paradoxical, right? We are going to delve into that specific subject soon but first, let’s find out more about your other subjects of research: You carried out a study, including a follow-up, together with Dieter Wolke and Sarah Woods, on children from year 2 (aged 6-7 years) and year 4 (aged 8-9 years) on the issue of bullying and escaping bullying victimisation. What were the main conclusions of this study, in terms of the relation between children and class social hierarchies and with regards to the continuation of bullying victimisation?
It was found also that direct victimization was only stable for girls not boys, i.e., girls at follow up were more likely to continue as direct victims compared to boys, and for those who received few positive peer nominations.
Thus, friends and being liked by peers can protect against prolonged victimisation. It could be that females who remain as direct victims may not have reciprocated best friends that are able to buffer against the negative and adverse effects of direct victimisation in terms of adaptive coping strategies and were thus less likely to be nominated as liked peers.
The study also revealed that emotional health problems and high class hierarchical structure were found to predict becoming a relational victim at follow up including excluding from the group and spreading rumours and lies. This finding emphasises the importance of being aware of a child’s physical and emotional health as a risk factor for bullying involvement. Relational bullies may have the skills required to recognise that a child is suffering with such problems and therefore target this vulnerability using psychological forms of manipulation, which in turn may exacerbate the child’s emotional problems leading to a pattern of relational victimisation. The strong social ranking of the peer hierarchy at baseline could have hampered the child’s ability to interact with peers, and had a negative impact on the development of competent social interactions that were subsequently seized on by bullies at follow-up.
WONDERLANCER: Dr. Samara, to your knowledge, which would you say is the top number 1 cause for social exclusion within the school environment nowadays, at least in Britain: economic status, culture/race, religion, sexuality, disability…?
We found that bullying and victimisation were most strongly predicted and related to child characteristics before school entry with some familial and environmental factors. This was especially obvious with relational bullying with only relational bullies being predicted mainly by family factors. In addition, relational victims were more likely to be predicted or related specifically to cognitive deficit or negative verbal abilities compared to direct bullying. This may explain why relational victims cannot escape victimisation or defend themselves. These children usually lack self-esteem and confidence in their own worth; they bring their characteristics to the environment and to their relationships and consequently become more vulnerable to victimisation. These may include also race, religion or disability.
In the case of bullies, they pick up on these vulnerable children and try to manipulate and influence their behaviour. A particularly high-risk group are those pupils who are bully/victims, those who bully others but are also victimised by others. This group of children shared the characteristics of bullies and victims and is distinguished by more behavioural, cognitive preschool problems and adverse family background. On another study we also found that those who are bullied by their siblings at home were more likely to be bullied by their peers at school and to have more behaviour and emotional problems compared to those who were not involved in bullying. Certainly, factors such as racism, religion, sexuality and disability also play a role. So, in summary I would say it is a complex of several factors and domains that cause children to be involved in bullying and/or victimisation.
WONDERLANCER: Back to the subject of war: According to the outstanding paper Children in War, which you worked on, in conjunction with Mohamed Altawil and David Harrold, and which covers the issue of Palestinian refugees, we find out that 1,200 Palestinian children were killed and 16,000 badly injured in the period from October 2000 to January 2007. That’s over 200 children killed and over 2,600 injured per year. Apart from the obvious physical scars of the injured, what are the most common psychological scars that these children will have, probably for life?
For example the loss of a loved person is one of the most intensely painful experiences any human being can suffer.
Obviously, the psychological consequences of these traumatic experiences have had a negative influence on normal child development.
These children have not known a day of real peace in all their lives. As in all modern wars, the victims of the latest Middle Eastern wars are mainly civilians including children. The effects of the ongoing violence on children and youths are both short-term (intense fear, episodes of bed wetting, difficulty in concentrating, eating and sleeping disorders, irritability, hyperactivity) and long-term. Some of the post-traumatic symptoms persist for several years after the traumatic event with an increase in anti-social behaviour during adolescence and neurotic problems during adulthood. Traumatic war events often lead to many mental health problems including anxiety, fear, paranoia and suspicion, grief, despair, hopelessness, withdrawal, depression, somatisation, anger and hostility. In addition to psychiatric symptoms, there are also problems in work, family, and marital relationships, adjustment, and in acculturation and assimilation.
WONDERLANCER: Would you please be so kind as to explain to our readers what post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is, which are its more severe degrees and how they affect the child’s development?
DR. MUTHANNA SAMARA: Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is the complex somatic, cognitive, affective and behavioural effects of psychological trauma.
PTSD is characterized by intrusive thoughts, nightmares and flashbacks of past traumatic events, severe anxiety, avoidance of reminders of trauma, hypervigilance, and sleep disturbance, all of which lead to considerable social, occupational, and even interpersonal dysfunction.
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