Multi-disciplinary approaches to support children growing up in violent extremist environments

Growing up in a family environment marked by violent extremism can impact children in numerous ways. It is therefore necessary to put into effect individually-tailored multi-disciplinary approaches to support these children’s reintegration. Children exposed to Islamist and far-right extremist narratives and violence, whether at home or in conflict zones, may experience varying levels of emotional distress, anxiety, depression, trauma, anger, or grief. Boys and girls might also be affected differently, considering aspects such as sexual abuse, slavery, training, or exposure to violent propaganda material. Given the complexity and variety of these children’s experiences, and the particular risks, stigmas and vulnerabilities such experiences may create, supporting these children and their families will likely require a “multiactor and multisector approach.”

The need for multifaceted programmes

Children exposed to violent extremism present a varied range of needs that a single intervention is unlikely to be able to address alone. Adequately addressing the complex set of vulnerabilities they present can only be done through a multifaceted approach, with children normally requiring a combination of different interventions, including mental health and psychosocial support (e.g. trauma-focused therapy, educational care, vocational training, and mentoring), as well as recreational and cultural interventions, such as arts and games therapy. Not only are multiple forms of interventions required to support children and their families, but the adequate combination of interventions will likely vary from one child to another. Approaches should be based on individualised assessment and tailored to children’s needs considering the trauma they have experienced, their age, level of development, gender, and other relevant considerations.

Supporting these children might also require interventions to be targeted, not only at children themselves, but also at their family as well as the broader community. For instance, providing trauma sensitisation training to family members, foster families, social workers, and others with regular contact with these children, as well as training in therapeutic parenting where relevant, can help prepare them “to respond to expressions of previous traumatic experiences and unique behavioural challenges.” Likewise, developing strategic communications around the repatriation and reintegration of (child) returnees towards receiving communities and the media may also help mitigate risks of stigmatisation and facilitate reintegration.

A comprehensive set of actors

Across national contexts we see a variety of actors working with families to prevent radicalisation to violence, to encourage reintegration (and rehabilitation), and to tackle extremism. Just as processes of radicalisation are not homogenous, neither are the professionals working in this field. In fact, best practices show that a multitude of individuals may be needed in order to provide individually tailored support for each child. Among those who could be involved include:  

  • Medical doctors may intervene to conduct medical check-ups and provide adequate treatment to children who may need it, in particular upon their return from conflict areas;
  • Psychologists, psychiatrists, and other mental health professionals can be involved in carrying out psychological assessments, identifying specific vulnerability factors, determining and, when necessary, providing children with appropriate follow-up psychological support;
  • Legal professionals are best suited to observe and intervene throughout any legal processes the family may be involved in. They are able to provide legal guidance in the best interest of the child;
  • Youth care and social services are often on the front line to assist children and their families, especially in instances where extremist families choose to home-school children;
  • School teachers and afterschool caretakers offer consistent support and are often best positioned to notice vulnerabilities in children;
  • Civil society organisations may offer informal support and can help build trusting relationships with families where suspicion of formal security actors and governments is present.

Having a multi-disciplinary team working with families ensures that support and care are provided in different areas and periods of a child’s life, thus raising levels of individual resilience, as well as strengthening connection to wider society. However, caution should be taken as an overwhelming range of actors can also have a negative effect on a child’s development, especially if inconsistently present. A long-term approach that builds upon positive relationships and trust between children, families, and providers will likely bring more sustainable results. Ensuring that professionals are able to dedicate the adequate time and resources to support these children over a sustained period seems to be crucial.

Moreover, a multi-disciplinary team will also be best equipped to deal with the different needs of boys and girls, as well as children of different ages. Where some professionals may be unable to provide the right support to the specific needs of one child, other key actors should be available to step in and fill the gap. Finally, it is imperative that these actors work together to minimise silo effects, to increase knowledge-sharing, and to minimise negative discourses related to extremist families in the wider societal context. When capacity and skillset are not matched with the specific challenges posed to these professionals, training and capacity-building should be provided as part of professional development.


Violent extremism has been sensationalised across media and governmental discourses over the last few decades, leading to the over-securitisation of not only policies and laws, but language and response, and has the potential to lead to further trauma in individuals, exacerbating existing issues. A thorough understanding of the different experiences of individuals, and especially children who are less able to articulate their traumas, is key in responding in a positive manner, increasing resilience and healing. Multi-disciplinary actors that work in this field can be beneficial in providing concrete, holistic information to tackle stigma and false/negative narratives.

PREPARE seeks to help equip and offer support to the multitude of actors involved in working with children of extremist families. With the development of a tool and specialised trainings aimed at providing first-line practitioners, the project’s goal is to broaden the skillset and available resources to these professionals. Supporting first-line workers ultimately supports children in minimising vulnerabilities and stigmas and building resilience.

Anna-Maria Andreeva & Méryl Demuynck (ICCT)