A study published in the journal Royal Society Open Science explored the mental health of Syrian refugee families living in Turkish communities. The researchers found that mothers with greater post-traumatic stress had children with worse emotional processing abilities, suggesting that a mother’s post-traumatic stress can negatively impact her children’s social cognitive development.
In the last decade, over 5.5 million refugees have fled Syria to escape civil war, making it the largest refugee crisis in the world. Study authors Gustaf Gredebäck and his colleagues note that the severe hardships faced by refugees have left many of them with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The researchers were interested in studying how PTSD among refugee parents might influence the psychological development of refugee children, given that parental stress has been found to negatively impact children’s social cognitive development.
“The tragedies of the Syrian war and the hardship of refugees from this conflict is something that many of us carry with us, but it is not always clear what we as researchers can do to help. This is our first attempt at making a contribution,” Gredebäck, a professor of developmental psychology at Uppsala University, told PsyPost.
While many studies have investigated the mental health of Syrian refugees, Gredebäck and his team say that these studies have largely focused on refugees who are living in refugee camps or in Europe. The current research has neglected to investigate those who have migrated to neighboring countries, who make up the largest percentage of Syrian refugees.
In their study, the researchers investigated 100 Syrian refugee families living in Konya, Turkey — a total of 174 adults and 220 children. In their homes, both adults and children completed a range of experimental tasks including an emotional processing task. The task presented participants with a series of faces and asked them to identify the emotion being expressed in each face (anger, fear, happiness, sadness, or neutral). Parents additionally completed a questionnaire that measured their demographics, migration history, risk factors, social environment, discrimination, and history of traumatic events. The questionnaire also included a post-traumatic stress (PTS) assessment that measured the presence of disturbing memories and the tendency to avoid reminders of a stressful event.
The results revealed that the prevalence of PTSD among parents was high — according to scores on the PTS questionnaire, 81% of mothers and 71% of fathers met criteria for a PTSD diagnosis.
Gredebäck and his fellow researchers next conducted a statistical analysis to investigate the interplay between parents’ PTSD symptoms, parents’ traumatic past, and children’s emotional processing. The results revealed that children’s emotional processing scores were negatively related to mothers’ post-traumatic stress scores — mothers with higher post-traumatic stress had children with lower emotional processing abilities. This was even after controlling for history of trauma, suggesting that the observed effect was not driven by the mother and child’s shared experience of trauma.
Remarkably, as a mothers’ PTS symptoms dropped by one point on the scale, a child’s emotional processing scores increased by the equivalent of one year of development. By contrast, fathers’ PTS symptoms were not significantly related to children’s emotional processing scores, perhaps because mothers tend to play a more influential role in the development of children.
Notably, the study also found that neither mothers’ nor fathers’ PTS symptoms had an impact on their own emotional processing scores. This suggests that the effect was not driven by the transfer of a mother’s emotional processing skills to her children. Instead, the study authors suggest that a mothers’ experience of trauma likely influences her mental health, which then affects her ability to “nurture and support” her children.
One way to shield children from the negative impact of mothers’ poor mental health, the authors say, might be to directly treat mothers’ PTSD symptoms. Alternatively, it may be more helpful to provide support for mothers (financially or with parental support programs) in order to improve their quality of life, and in turn, their children’s.
“Children that have experienced war and refuge are affected by their mothers mental health. Supporting mothers will improve both their wellbeing and the psychological development of their children,” Gredebäck said.
The researchers emphasize that longitudinal studies will be needed to shed light on whether decreases in mothers’ PTS are followed by improvements in children’s emotional processing.
“The study is correlational and as such only a first step,” Gredebäck explained. “We are currently analyzing if similar generational effects can be found for other areas of children’s cognitive development, such as intelligence and self-regulation. Once this is done, we will seek funding for intervention studies that allow us to assess causal relations and at the same time assess different ways to support families in need.”
“We are currently planning studies that assess the relation between parental mental health and child development in several different countries (Bhutan, Sweden, Turkey, Zimbabwe) and in relation to war, poverty and urbanization,” Gredebäck added. “This work is planned and conducted together with local collaborators from each countries. I have found this to be some of the most stimulating work I have taken part in, as it has forced me (and us in the lab) to question some basic assumptions about child development. There is so much to learn from diversity and theories that are initiated with a different cultural reference frame than what I have been used to in the past.”
The study, “Social cognition in refugee children: an experimental cross-sectional study of emotional processing with Syrian families in Turkish communities”, was authored by Gustaf Gredebäck, Sara Haas, Jonathan Hall, Seth Pollak, Dogukan Cansin Karakus, and Marcus Lindskog.