Kenya’s recent general election was held amid political tension and fear. Election violence is not new to the East African country. About 1,100 people, including children, died in the events that followed the election in 2007.

This time, opposition candidate Raila Odinga immediately disputed the victory of Uhuru Kenyatta as president. This has led to killings, injuries and loss of property in post-election protests in the capital and elsewhere. Two children were reportedly among the casualties.

A climate of fear and uncertainty can trigger psychological distress for all people. However, children are more vulnerable because graphic images shape their developing brains, leaving effects that last into adolescence and adulthood.

Children are exposed to violence on television and other media platforms. They can also witness violence or even death in their families or neighbourhoods.

This can cause lasting physical, mental and emotional harm. The short and long term psychological effects include behavioural and emotional symptoms like fear, aggression, irregular sleep patterns, disturbed play and learning difficulties.

For those Kenyans who experienced the 2007/2008 post-election violence as children, the media messages of anxiety and calls for peace may bring back their worst memories. They could become anxious whenever elections take place.

Studies show that the effect of violence on a child’s future psychological well-being depends on their age, coping mechanisms, and cognitive and verbal abilities.

Behaviour changes

People interpret traumatic events differently, according to their age and socialisation. Children have immature mental processes which could misinterpret events and trigger trauma related conditions unless they get psychological support.

Violence negatively affects a child’s interactions. A child interacts with family members, peers, schoolmates, neighbours and other groups. A break in these connections interferes with a child’s normal development.

Children often internalise their fear. They may feel anxious, depressed or stressed. Some act out and become more aggressive. They may consider acts of violence as normal.

Boys are more likely to be more aggressive, impulsive or antisocial than girls when exposed to violence.Studies have shown that girls tend to internalise emotions as anxiety and depression.

Persistent and excessive fear of losing a caregiver in an accident or disaster is a common reaction to trauma. The child becomes restless and does not want to be separated from the caregiver.

Some children will cry frequently, become sad or have poor concentration and decreased interest in social activities unless a guardian is present. They may become tense or restless and constantly worry that something bad will take place.

They may have nightmares or re-enact traumatic events when playing. Other symptoms include irritability and startled reactions. This can impair cognitive and social functioning and lead to poor school performance.

In adulthood, they may become dependent and over-protective of their loved ones. Their behaviour may cause conflict in some families.

Coping with the effects of violence and fear

Children feel more secure when there is less conflict in the family and community.

Effects of violence are treatable through individual therapy or group therapy. Studies in Indonesia show that affected children were helped by counselling programmes at school, where they expressed their fears. They learnt coping techniques to apply when faced with fear.

Way forward

Adults should restrict children’s access to media channels that broadcast violence. Media policies should reflect an understanding that children can be harmed by what they see and hear.

Experts like psychologists should help make the public aware of the impact of violence. They can also provide referrals for affected children.

Schools and communities should offer therapy to help children affected by violence. For example, children can learn to express themselves emotionally through co-operative play. Schools can also teach children that the differences between politicians are not personal but based on issues.The ConversationParents should know that children cope better when they feel they are securely attached to their families.

Authors: Winnie Waiyaki, Lecturer, Department of Psychology, Daystar University and Maureen Onyango-Ngesa, PhD Candidate, Clinical Psychology, Daystar University

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