The importance of home

Child psychologist Paul Howard-Jones reflects on the importance of a safe and stable home on a child’s development.

7 December 2021

Child smiling while looking through the doorway of a tent in Syria

By Paul Howard-Jones, Professor in Neuroscience and Education at the University of Bristol

Millions of children around the world have been forced to flee their homes from conflict, war, and disaster. They have been subjected to unimaginable horrors and trauma at very young ages, all of which will have a lasting impact on their mental health. 

Here Child psychologist Paul Howard-Jones, reflects on the importance of a safe and stable home on a child’s development.


Home is a place where children can explore, play, discover, and have those critical interactions with adults that help them develop the confidence and skills that shape the person they will later become.

It’s the here-and-now world experienced by parents and their children together that has the greatest effect on a young child’s development… watching someone open a book and  hearing them read, being invited to touch things when learning to count, being asked questions about what  they see.

But this is less straightforward when children are surrounded by an atmosphere of fearfulness and loss. It can undermine the capacities of adults and children and may damage the foundations on which future development and learning must build.

a boy standing next to a pole in a shelter in Syria

Six-year-old Husein is one of the thousands of children displaced by the Syrian conflict. His parents said: “We wish our children lived in better conditions than we live in at the present time.”


The impact on children

Our early experiences can have a life-long impact on how we think, feel, and relate to the world and each other. When the world is a fearful place, full of chaos and anxiety, children can learn not to engage with it and instead withdraw.

Many of us may have noticed a child fall silent when they encounter something they fear – a sinister character in a film or seeing a scary animal in a zoo. But serious trauma can have a more prolonged impact on a child’s communication – with knock-on effects for their long-term development.

Talking about feelings, for example, is an important part of a child coming to understand and control their emotions – but this can be more difficult for children who have experienced trauma or grown up in a truly fearful or difficult world. When a child does not feel safe or secure, their brain, which is still developing, will find ways to adapt in order to cope. This is why children may seem more withdrawn or not be able to sleep.

One of the most common signs of anxiety amongst children is sleep disturbance – which is a double whammy for learning because a good night’s sleep helps make permanent what’s already been learnt.

A woman sat down with her 4 children inside a shelter in Syria

‘I am afraid to be displaced from here. Displacement is difficult, and I do not have a family to turn to, I am afraid that one of my children will be injured, I will regret and grieve for that throughout my life, displacement and homelessness is an insult’, says Umm, Syrian mother of four.


The impact on parents

In such challenging circumstances, it will be immensely difficult for parents struggling to achieve a nurturing home environment. Research suggests that, even when we try not to, we transmit feelings of anxiety to our children unconsciously.

Parents who have been forced to flee their homes with their children will be coping with so much. In addition to the almost unimaginable circumstances, they may also be having to help their children with issues like sleep disruption, diminished self-esteem, isolation, and withdrawal. This will be enormously emotionally challenging for the whole family.

It must feel very difficult to create positive learning experiences when the place you are living in feels unsafe and insecure, where a child’s natural curiosity and enthusiasm are so easily displaced by traumatic memories as well as fear of their current surroundings.

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Top banner: Solaf, 7 years old, Syria.