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When Adolescents Go to War

Teen soldiers will need enormous support on any road to recovery.

Key points

  • All soldiers face high risk of adverse mental health, but soldiers under the age of 25 are particularly vulnerable.
  • Teen soldiers form new neural connections to adapt to combat, and other neural connections will be "pruned" away.
  • Because of teens’ particular vulnerability, psychologists have campaigned for more careful assessment of those who fight.
  • Lack of training contributes to teen soldiers' vulnerability, and they will need massive support on the road to recovery.

A picture posted by Jeremy Bowen on Twitter shows a group of 18-year-old Ukrainians leaving for the front line of fighting in Kyiv after only three days’ training. In their neutral stares and stances, they look more like teen boys out for a camping trip, their knee pads somehow more substantial than the weapons they carry.

These teen volunteers are a far cry from the tough, macho hero of graphic books the boys probably were reading just a few years ago. Their primary concern seems to be more with the daunting camera (as they struggle with that teen “looking glass self” and appearance anxiety) than the dangers ahead. The boy on the far right (we know, from Jeremy Bowen’s report on BBC News, March 4, that he is a student of economics) is distracted by something in his left field of vision. Moments later they board a bus with other volunteers and shout, “Victory” and, “Death to our enemies.” But it all seems good-natured, somehow, devoid of menace or malice. After all, 10 days ago they did not expect to fight in a war, and their sense of self does not yet incorporate the role of soldier.

Young people engaging in combat always signal a betrayal of humanity. We think of child soldiers, brutalized and brutal, shaped by warlords rather than loving families. The teens setting out in their recently peaceful country are not damaged as child soldiers are, and the preservation of their healthy humanity is one of the many things that makes this image so unsettling. Though people around the world looking at this image know that three weeks from now they will never be the same again, these teen boys themselves may be oblivious to everything other than a not yet digested sense of adventure and fear of their own fear.

All soldiers in combat face a high risk of adverse mental health, but research shows that younger soldiers — under the age of 25 years — are considerably more vulnerable. Teens in combat are seven times more likely than adult soldiers to experience post-traumatic stress, when experiences of threat and their own helplessness remain raw and immediate, leaving them on constant high alert, when every sound or smell or movement signals mortal danger, and they therefore respond in ways that — in peacetime — are inappropriate and destructive.[1]

From around the age of 12 until the age of 24, the brain undergoes rapid change, growing new connections that shape behaviour patterns and skill development and expectations. The human brain is so adaptable in adolescence because, given the changing human environment, each generation needs to navigate its own special habitat.

All combat soldiers learn skills and coping mechanisms that may serve them well in war, but leave them ill-equipped for peacetime. Decisions in combat need to be made quickly, and have life versus death consequences. To adapt, the brain shuts down reflection, drastically limits empathy and ignores individual emotions (such as fear) and needs (for creature comforts, including rest and warmth and security). Once out of combat, adult soldiers have a better chance of switching back to peacetime patterns of behavior, but an 18-year-old does not have established adult neural connections to rely on. Not only will teen soldiers be forming new neural connections to adapt to combat, other neural connections that are not being used in their terrible environments with be “pruned” away. The adolescent brain develops not only by growing new connections, it is also streamlined by shedding connections that are not used.

Because of teens’ particular vulnerability, psychologists have campaigned for more careful assessment of those who should be allowed to fight. But this current war does not allow such “luxuries” of assessment and selection. For these teens, too, lack of training (theirs was only three days) is an issue. The purpose of training is to make combat behaviour automatic and to create a setting in which bizarre and terrible things become a new but restricted normality. Training accustoms soldiers to forego autonomy, so they act under orders where there is no need, or opportunity, to wonder whether you are doing the right thing. Training obliterates the question, “What does doing this tell me about who I am?” Training limits the anxiety of the moment and may dim the subsequent terror of accountability for doing what combat soldiers do.

An additional tragedy is that the boys in this photo will be fighting against teen boys who, though they will have had a training advantage, will have the additional risk to mental health that occurs when soldiers are in combat with civilians.[2] In some better future, many teens now setting off to fight will return to families and teachers who will embrace them with overwhelming relief and love. But their disrupted lives will also present challenges. The international community of psychologists will be needed to support a traumatized population on a road to recovery.


1. Resul Cesur, Joseph J. Sabia & Erdal Tekin (April 2011) The Psychological Costs of War: Military Combat and Mental Health Discussion Paper No. 5615. IZA.

Bruce Dohrenwend, Thomas Yager, Melanie Wall, (July 2013) The Roles of Combat Exposure, Personal Vulnerability, and Involvement in Harm to Civilians or Prisoners in Vietnam-War-Related Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Clinical Psychological Science: 1(3): 223-238.

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