The harsh reality in which we live forces our children to face stressful situations that are not part of normal childhood. How do they deal with them? It is a question often asked by professionals and the public at large. Curiously, most children adjust. One cannot help but wonder what psychosocial mechanisms help them overcome these harsh conditions and develop a mature, loving and functioning personality. True, there is a body of research showing the dreadful effect war has on children's psychological and behavioral development. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, anxiety, depression, low scholastic abilities, antisocial behavior, disobedience and high levels of aggression are just some of the problems found in children exposed to war.1 Fortunately, however, not all studies have found these negative effects and some have identified that children who were exposed to the horror of war tend to raise their moral standards and well-being.2 These findings may seem hard to believe. Furthermore, how can we dare to note positive psychological effects arising from the hell of war? It sounds immoral, insensitive and even dangerous. Let me first emphasize that in no way does this discussion imply that war has a positive effect on the well-being of children. Indeed, it is hardly necessary for me to state that war is immoral and causes more harm than any other human-made disaster. What I would like to discuss is the way children may alter negative circumstances and find the capacity to deal with them.

Negative Events Can Produce Positive Outcomes

Lately, various studies have suggested that negative life events can result in positive outcomes.3 We have evidence that people are able to lead happy and healthy lives after experiencing trauma. What is more surprising is that some survivors do report positive changes in their lives, as a reaction to the traumatic event. In some cases, survivors of trauma have changed their life philosophy, social relationships and acquired more adaptive behavior.4 Unfortunately, most of these studies were not designed to assess psychological growth after trauma and the data relied on anecdotal reports, or on general and very brief questionnaires. It is likely that researchers find it emotionally difficult and even immoral to study whether negative situations may contribute to well-being. Recently, two researchers, Tedeschi and Calhoun (1996), have developed "The Post-Traumatic Growth Inventory" (TPGI) that has the daring aim of assessing positive outcomes after a traumatic event. The TPGI measures positive change in five dimensions: new possibilities, relating to others, personal strength, spiritual change, and appreciation of life. Tedeschi and Calhoun found that people who had experienced negative events reported more positive changes than people who had not experienced such events. Positive changes were unrelated to the passage of time. To be more precise, the researchers found that positive and negative effects of traumatic events coexisted in the same person. One obvious question that may arise is whether psychological growth is merely an illusion. Does the victim of a traumatic event need to believe the experience had a positive meaning?
In a study conducted by Park and associates (1996) it was found that college students' growth responses were significantly related to those provided by friends and relatives on their behalf. The similarity between the reports that came from two different sources suggested that growth was not a mere illusion. Furthermore, it was also found that growth is more likely to be reported if the event was painful and the resolution was challenging and difficult. Importantly, the authors suggested that the struggle to cope was the source of potential benefit, rather than the nature of the event. An event that causes more initial distress allows an individual more opportunities to struggle with it, to work through it and to find meaning.

Study of Israeli Youth Subjected to Terrorism

What did we find in a study of Israeli youth who were subjected to two years of terrorist incidents? The Adler Center of Tel Aviv University sampled 2,999 Israeli Jewish youth from Grades 7 to 9. The sample included teenagers living in two big cities in the center of the country: Netanya - which suffered many such attacks, and Rehovot - which was free of them. Six settlements from Judea, Samaria and Gaza were also included: Gush Katif, Kiriat Arba, Ariel, Oranit, Elkana and Karni-Shomron. Four possible outcomes were examined, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, psychiatric symptoms, change in basic cognitive assumptions, and post-traumatic growth. Other dimensions included were social and community support, ideological obligation and religious commitment. To the original five scales of the TPGI noted earlier, we added two more: enhanced feeling of responsibility toward family and friends, and a sense of obligation toward community and country. We found that children who had been more exposed to terrorist attacks tended to report more symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (negative outcome) but also higher post-traumatic growth scores (positive outcome) compared to children who were less exposed. The correlation between both measures was high (r=.40).
These findings suggest that, although terrorist acts had a negative effect on the lives of many Israeli youngsters, some of them did succeed in developing a stronger sense of growth. Terrorist acts, like other traumatic experiences, shake the world the youth is living in but also may cause the victim to rethink his or her cognitive assumptions of the world and the people around them.5 In some cases, this rethinking builds a new and stronger feeling of self, and of the value of the world and other people. We were intrigued to find whether or not there is a social mechanism that could help children exposed to war develop a sense of personal growth. If such a mechanism were found, it could help us plan creative strategies to help victims.

Bettelheim and Frankel's Conclusion

The famous psychologist Bruno Bettelheim described the time he was in a concentration camp during World War II. In order to save his sanity, he decided to immerse himself in a study as a participant researcher. His aim was to find prisoners who would succeed in preserving their ego. He concluded that communist prisoners and religious Jews, whose ideologies helped them explain the reason for their suffering, were better able to cope with the unbearable conditions in the camp and managed to save their identity. His conclusion was that ideology (either political or religious) gave meaning to life in a meaningless situation.6 As Victor Frankel once put it, "People who have why, can suffer almost every how."
We have found that children who were more exposed to terrorist attacks had higher ideological commitment and a stronger sense of religious obligation. It is reasonable to assume that some of this association is due to the fact that ideologically minded parents, who are more religious, tend to live in settlements that are more exposed to such attacks. We believe this is not the whole picture.
According to the Terror Management Theory, the awareness of people's vulnerability and ultimate mortality creates paralyzing terror dread. In order to overcome this anxiety, human beings have developed cultural mechanisms that enable them to feel part of something greater than themselves, something that will last long after they are no longer alive. These cultural mechanisms give the world meaning, provide order to a disorderly world, and even give humans a sense of worth. One such cultural mechanism is ideology. Another is religion. However, a stronger sense of cultural obligation also has a negative side. If the theory is right and cultural mechanisms can defend us from feeling anxious, the existence of other people with different worldviews may remind us that our beliefs are not valid in any absolute sense. This could be very threatening since no one wants to be wrong, especially when it concerns his or her mortality. That is why, according to the theory, people tend to become narrow-minded, especially when they are reminded of their possible death.
This theory has been tested in several experiments that have found that awareness of death enhances cultural identity. Mortality salience appears to increase in-group solidarity, out-group derogation, nationalism, religious extremism, prejudice, discrimination and intolerance of deviance. The studies have failed to show that mortality salience enhanced self worth.7 This may explain why we have found that children who were exposed to terrorist attacks tended to have a stronger sense of ideology and religious commitment. Conceivably, awareness of death caused by terror attacks strengthened their in-group identification, deepening their ideological and religious commitment. However, because of the study, this conclusion must be accepted with certain reservations. If ideological obligation and religious commitment are higher in children who were exposed to terror attacks, can they also serve them in building psychological growth? In order to answer this question, we have examined the correlation between ideological obligation, religious commitment and psychological growth. Ideological commitment is not synonymous with political beliefs. People can have a strong sense of ideological commitment whether they are politically on the right or left. Therefore, in our study, ideological commitment was not examined as implying right- or left-wing political ideas, but by three different dimensions: 1. active commitment - which tested participation in activities concerning political ideology; 2. high confidence in one's political ideas - the youth's conviction that he or she will hold the same political ideology when they grow older, and 3. lack of tolerance toward other political ideas - the youth's feeling that other political beliefs are wrong, dangerous and should not be heard. sIf the youth was not secular, he or she was asked to answer a religious commitment questionnaire that included three dimensions of religious obligation: 1. religion as a way of life - this measured whether religion is an active part of the youth's daily routine; 2. religion as a social obligation - measuring if the youth feels his or her religious acts result from social obligation; and 3. religious centrality - measuring whether or not the youth feels religious obligation is the most central part of his or her life.

Importance of the Active Dimension

In our study we found that ideological commitment and religious obligation are correlated to psychological growth only in their active dimensions, i.e., active commitment to ideology and religion as a way of life. The other dimensions of ideology and religion had no correlation to psychological growth. This finding may imply that being active when faced with harsh conditions, whether through ideological commitment or religious obligation, could help to develop a sense of psychological growth. It could also explain why studies that measured ideology as a political belief found no connection between ideology and the youth's well-being (Slone, Lobel, & Gilat, 1999), whereas studies that examined ideology as an active participation in political acts, did find it to have a shielding effect on children's well-being in times of military violence.8 The findings of our study may imply that when facing dreadful situations, youth can find a new sense of faith in themselves and the world around them. Ideology and religious commitment may help them rebuild their faith only if it encourages active participation in the world. Passive belief in ideology or religion is not enough. In order to make a new, more positive meaning for the world, the youth must actively use his or her beliefs. Only such an active use of ideology and religious faith may be helpful in creating new meaning in an obscure world. We must remember that ideology and religious commitment also have a darker side. As studies have shown, the more centered you become in your group, the less you are open to other ideologies or religious ideas. Thus, ideology and religion may be used as a healing power, but also as a weapon. This is especially true in our region.

1 Apekar & Stocklin, 1994, Aziz, Thabet, & Vostanis, 1999; Chimienti, Nasr, & Khalifeh, 1989; Drenman 1989; Lavi, 2003; Qouta, Punamaki & Sarraj, 1995; Thabet, Abed & Vostanis, 2002; Zvizdic, & Butollo, 2001.
2 Summary in Aptker and Stocklin, 1994.
3 Tedesci & Calhoun, 1996; Park, Cohen & Murch, 1996.
4 Collins, Taylor & Skokan, 1990; Lehaman, Davis, DeLongis, Wortman, Bluck, Mandel & Ellard, 1993; Park & Cohen, 1993; Taylor, Lichtman & Wood, 1984; Taylor, Wood & Lichtman, 1983; Wallerstein, 1986.
5 Janoff-Bulman, 1989.
6 Bettelheim,1961.
7 Greenberg et al., 1990; Rosenblatt et al., 1989, Solomon et al., 1991, Sowards et al., 1991.
8 Kostelny & Garbarino, 1994; Punamaki, Quota, & El-Samir, 2001.

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