March 30, 2018

Early Childhood Development Week: protection keeps trauma and fear at bay for young children

Child protection is an important component of ensuring healthy early development

Photo credit: UNHCR / Andrew McConnell

Elaine Hunter

Early childhood development writer

We're looking at the five vital aspects of nurturing care for the under-fives featured in our #5for5 campaign - today we examine why being safe helps children to grow and thrive.

Theirworld's #5for5 campaign has been calling for countries to invest in early childhood development - including nutrition, health, learning, play and protection. 90% of a child’s brain is developed by the time they are five years old, which means the early years are crucial. 

This week, in our special Early Childhood Development Week, supported by Conrad N Hilton Foundation, we take a look at each of the five key areas of nurturing care, bringing you a snapshot of why it’s important and what world leaders are doing to give children in developing countries a better chance of a prosperous life. 


Children always need protection – no matter where they are born. But it’s more crucial in developing countries where resources are in short supply. And even more so during a conflict or where there is widespread famine or disease. Some children are orphaned or abandoned, many displaced. And large numbers are at risk of violence, exploitation, disease or recruitment by armed groups.

What’s happening?

Almost 90 million children under the age of seven have spent their whole lives in a war zone. More than 16 million babies were born in conflict zones in 2015 – an average of 43,835 per day - and today one in 10 children now live in conflict-affected areas, according to UNICEF. 50 million children have been uprooted, 28 million of them fleeing from war, in the last 18 months.

“War can be particularly devastating for children," said Natalie Turgut, Child Rights Policy and Advocacy Adviser for War Child, which supports children acutely affected by conflict in countries including Iraq, Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

Child protection also includes ensuring young children do not endure constant insecurity and violence in their surroundings

Photo credit: CAFOD

Why is it important?

Keeping children - especially the youngest ones - safe from harm and fear is crucial. A young child’s brain is developing so quickly in the first five years (90% of a child’s brain is developed by the time he/she is five). 

So it’s imperative that the brain is given the best chance to grow. Trauma and fear during these years adversely affects brain development. 

“The experiences of war-affected children could lead to a generation of children experiencing long-term mental health, social and economic problems', said Alison Schafer, a mental health psychological support specialist with the charity World Vision.

A UNICEF child-friendly space offers protection and support for refugee children in Macedonia

What needs to be done?

More must be done to protect the most vulnerable in times of crisis and war. Charities are rushing in aid and are aware of how crucial it is to get to the youngest survivors of conflict – and setting up safe spaces. 

If they can help ease some of the trauma in the early years as the brain is developing, the children of conflicts stand a better chance of long-term recovery.

Early childhood programmes can be safe havens for young children and families and provide the oasis they need in the midst of chaos.

Joan Lombardi, First Deputy Assistant Secretary and Interagency Liaison for early childhood development at the United States Department of Health

What is being done?

Charities are setting up safe spaces for children - to give little ones a place to play and learn away from the trauma of their make-shift temporary homes. Many have fled war and are refugees crammed into camps. Many are alone.

World Vision helped traumatised Syrian youngsters in child-friendly spaces. The charity said: "The immediate and long-term wellbeing of children remains a serious concern for humanitarian organisations.”

Research on child-friendly spaces for refugee children in Ethiopia and Uganda found that children participating in such programmes showed more sustained and consistent mental, social and emotional wellbeing than those who did not.

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