Parenting challenges and needs in Syrian refugee families

Background to the research

Millions of families worldwide have been displaced from their homes due to conflict in their home countries. They face new and difficult parenting challenges. We have just completed a series of studies exploring parenting experiences of families living as refugees having fled Syria due to the ongoing conflict, investigating specifically what challenges they are facing in parenting their children are and how a parent training programme could help in this context.

Where was the study conducted?

Numerous sites on the Syrian-Turkish border were accessed to collect data:

  • Schools in Reyhanli, Turkey
  • Two refugee camps in Syria reached via the Bab al-Salameh and Bab al-Hawa border crossings
  • One refugee camp in Turkey
  • A building housing refugees who had just arrived in Turkey

Logistical support to cross the border and access refugee camps and schools was provided by Generation Freedom.


Assessing children’s mental health

Questionnaires were administered to parents and caregivers to assess the mental health of children in schools, refugee camps and a building housing refugees. The results revealed high levels of psychological distress in the 106 children assessed.

49% of children were experiencing clinical levels of anxiety and withdrawal.

62% were experiencing abnormally high levels of fear.

34% were experiencing clinical levels of behavioural difficulties such as acting more aggressively.


Interviews with parents living in refugee camps on the Turkey-Syria border

Interviews and focus groups were carried out with Syrian refugee families who had fled their homes due to the conflict in Syria. The research was conducted in refugee tents and schools both inside Syria and along the Turkey-Syria border.

What did parents say?

Parents reported urgently wanting help in understanding how best to parent their children. Of the most common difficulties parents highlighted was a big change in communication between themselves and their children. They reported that their children were much more frequently not doing as they were asked, thus compromising both their safety and health, while living in such horrific living conditions.

They made clear their need for help with behavioural and emotional changes in their children, and in their parenting approaches. “They are spitting and hitting and shouting and using bad words. Sometimes I can’t believe these are my children, we all say this. They are very bad now.”

Many of the descriptions of their concerns reflected their struggles to help children affected by trauma especially how to help their children cope with fears and nightmares. “They cry at night, they scream a lot while they are sleeping. They are very angry. They have so many unanswered questions that I do not know how to answer”. Maintaining a safe environment and keeping children clean and healthy in the camp context while facilitating play was also a concern.

How will we use the information we gathered in this study?

Data from these studies will be used to guide the development of a parent training programme tailored for displaced families. Further studies will examine the efficacy and acceptability of such parent training on refugee families including what impact it may have on parenting and child and parent mental health in this context.

Outputs from the Research

El-Khani, A., Ulph, F., Redmond, A. D., & Calam, R. (2013). Ethical issues in research into conflict and displacement. The Lancet, 382(9894), 764-765.

Cartwright, K., El-Khani, A., Subryan, A., & Calam, R. (2015). Establishing the feasibility of assessing the mental health of children displaced by the Syrian conflict. Global Mental Health, 2, e8. doi:10.1017/gmh.2015.3

El-Khani, A., Ulph, F., Peters, S., & Calam, R. (2016). Syria: the challenges of parenting in refugee situations of immediate displacement. Intervention, 14(2), 99-113.

El-Khani, A., Ulph, F., Peters, S., & Calam, R. (2016). Syria: coping mechanisms utilised by displaced refugee parents caring for their children in pre-resettlement contexts. Intervention, 14(3), 1-17