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
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.
7 Greenberg et al., 1990; Rosenblatt et al., 1989, Solomon et al.,
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8 Kostelny & Garbarino, 1994; Punamaki, Quota, & El-Samir,
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