Growing up in a violent extremist environment: an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) as ‘any other’?

Children of violent radicalised families (returnees, Islamic or right-wing violent extremists) live or have lived under circumstances that may be harmful to their development. Much attention goes to the early recognition of radicalisation processes in teens and young adults, in order to prevent violent extremism for the sake of national security. However, there may be other adverse consequences for a child growing up in a violent radicalised environment, and therefore, more risks at stake, for teens and young adults but also in the early childhood. Are children traumatised? Have they witnessed a lot of violence? Does it influence their social behaviour or their school achievements? What is it like to be a child of a returnee mother? What special needs do children who live with violent right-wing or Islamic extremists have?  These questions are only starting to be explored, with more research needed in this area.

Little is known about the lives of these children and their social, cognitive and emotional development. Until now, a child development or public health perspective on the children in violent extremist families has been snowed under a national security perspective. Under the UN Convention on Child Rights, however, children of violent radicalised families have the same rights as all other children, and need to be heard and supported equally, wherever needed.

Can growing up in a violent radicalised family be seen as any other Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE), and what does this mean for child development, and childrens’ and parents’ needs?

The term ‘ACE’ was first used by Felitti and colleagues (1998) for ten specific life events for children: parental separation or divorce, physical and emotional child abuse and neglect, sexual violence, domestic violence, household substance abuse, incarceration of a household member, and suicide or psychological issues with a household member. By using the so-called ACE-Questionnaire in a large sample, the occurrence of multiple ACEs appeared to be strongly related to risk behaviours and mental and somatic diseases (such as respiratory diseases, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, obesity, depression, and suicide) later in life. Over the years researchers rightfully added other ACEs, such as living in deprivation (chronic poverty), death of a parent, bullying, experience of war and displacement, etc. Growing up in a violent radicalised family is not one of them (yet). However, some of the items presented in the questionnaire might be of relevance in such an environment (e.g. “death of a parent”, “living in deprivation”). 

Indeed, children of returnees may have been exposed to violence inflicted to themselves or others, in real life or through images, and some may be traumatised by this, showing symptoms of post-traumatic stress Disorder (PTSD). Children may also have travelled a lot, or been isolated, meanwhile not attending to any form of education. Cognitive development and school achievements may then be far behind. Moreover, children of violent Islamic or right-wing extremists may have an incarcerated parent or family member. Their social behaviour may be complex, living in two cultures: one at home with specific doctrines and the other at school, where children of all backgrounds play together. The parent-child relationship, attachment and the family daily life may also be harmed and impact the development and education of the child. For these and more hypotheses the PREPARE team hopes to find answers in literature.

The Child Vulnerability and Intervention Tool: a tool to assist practitioners supporting children from violent extremist families.

Uncovering core vulnerabilities of children from violent extremist families is crucial for the multi-agency assessment framework being developed by our partner TNO. This tool will add to assess tools that are already in place in six European countries. The aim of a tool is to raise awareness amongst professionals who may encounter or work with these children and their parents; to assess their needs, and, knowing what their background is, refer to multidisciplinary interventions. They could target children’s specific needs at multiple levels to positively influence their global development.  Multidisciplinary care (medical, psychological, para-medical, social, educational), as early as possible, has proven to be beneficial to rebuild resilience in a child in need.

Bringing a child development and public health approach to the question of children growing up in violent radicalised environment is an urgent priority. The involvement of a broad team of practitioners in the field and of partners in this research project supports the emphasis on the needs of these children. 

Remy Vink & Beatrice Cadet (TNO)