Flag riots cause youths 'lasting harm'

Flag riots cause youths 'lasting harm'

Recent violence surrounding flag protests in Northern Ireland could cause "lasting harm" to young people, a gathering of early childhood leaders from conflict or post-conflict countries has heard.

Delegates from around the world met in Belfast on Wednesday to explore the impact of trauma and violence on children.

Keynote speak Professor Stuart Shanker - a world expert in neuroscience from York University in Toronto, Canada - told the conference that Northern Ireland's children are already more vulnerable to heightened stress and associated problems because of the legacy of the Troubles.

He highlighted that stress, and the inability to deal with it, can have massive negative knock-on effects throughout people's lives.

There is no such thing as a bad kid, everyone has got to understand that. There is such a thing as a stressed kid, but there's no such thing as a bad kid.

Professor Stuart Shanker

"Our children today are the most stressed children ever," Professor Shanker said.

"There are some studies today suggesting stress levels are five times of those experienced during the Great Depression.

"What we know from our studies is that punishment and reward doesn't really work - it has a very limited effect on behaviour and, in fact, in some cases may make things much worse."

According to Professor Shanker, stress that is not dealt with properly can have negative effects on attention span, ability to learn, and also the ability to make rational choices.

Emotions, including anger, begin to have a greater say in behaviour and a vicious circle can be created when children begin to struggle at school and also receive negative reactions to their behaviour - leading to more stress for affected children.

Professor Shanker, who has worked with the conference organisers Early Years for many years, added that he believed Northern Ireland to be a country with huge potential and one that it is making great efforts to deal with such issues - but that more can be done.

He advocates children being taught to manage their stress themselves, through early childhood services and schools, and parents being supported to understand their child's behaviour.

Early Years believes that our children are our most important assets but, as a society, we need to ensure that they are provided with every opportunity to reach their full potential.

Siobhan Fitzpatrick, Early Years

OFMdFM junior Minister Jennifer McCann, who opened the conference, said the issues discussed were of "major significance" - both locally and around the world.

"It is important to revisit the past so that we can learn from our experiences," she said.

"Young people must be offered the opportunity to learn about the past and reflect on the lessons that it can offer us as we work to build a better future."

Ms McCann added: "Junior Minister Bell and I are both committed to creating and improving opportunities for children and young people.

"In our Programme for Government, we acknowledged the need to increase shared learning facilities for everyone. Sharing in education creates the conditions for purposeful, regular interaction in learning for our young people.

"This is a key factor in improving the well being of society, as it promotes a culture of tolerance and mutual respect."

The conference comes after two months of flag-related protests - sparked by the restriction of the flying of the Union flag at Belfast City Hall - some of which have been marred by violence.

Children have been spotted at the scenes of riots and a number of young people have been arrested.


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