Public Release: 

Counseling helps war refugee mothers, their children cope

Center for Advancing Health

Providing psychosocial counseling to female war refugees provides both mental and physical health benefits beyond what basic medical care alone can offer, according to the results of a study conducted in Bosnia.

In addition to improving the mental state of women, the children of the mothers who received psychosocial counseling gained an average of 4.4 pounds during the five-month study.

This was more than one pound greater than was observed in the control group, a significant health improvement in an area where the children being studied initially weighed approximately two to four pounds less than the average Bosnian kindergarten age child.

"Satisfying psychosocial needs can affect nutritional status through its effect on metabolism, due to stress reduction, as well as by helping to produce changes in the demands and provisions of care," explains study author Ragnhild Dybdahl, of the department of psychology at the University of Tromso in Norway.

The study is published in the August issue of Child Development.

Dybdahl looked at measures of mental and physical health in 87 mother-child pairs of refugees living in the city of Tuzla. The 48 girls and 39 boys were five or six years old and had experienced multiple traumas which frequently included being shot at, seeing the corpses of war victims and separation from close relatives.

Both the experimental and control groups received free monthly medical care. The experimental group also received psychosocial support consisting of weekly meetings led by trained group leaders.

"The group discussions were designed to support the mother and increase her well-being, her self confidence and her ability to care for her children in this difficult situation and be her child's best healer," explains Dybdahl. "Each meeting was semi-structured and dedicated to education and discussions about specific topics, such as child development, mother-child interaction, trauma and coping strategies."

Attending the weekly sessions also was associated with reduction of trauma symptoms and increased life satisfaction for the women as well as happier, less restless, less easily distracted, and less clingy children who experienced less drastic mood changes.

"One probable explanation for the positive effects of the intervention on the children is through their mothers' symptom reduction so that the mothers become more able to help their children," Dybdahl says.

"The study has also provided some evidence that a simple and inexpensive psychosocial intervention program can have positive effects on the mental health of mothers and their children as well as on the children's weight gain. In war conditions, such action is urgently needed," she adds.


This study was supported in part by UNICEF and the University of Tromso.

Child Development is the bimonthly peer-reviewed journal of the Society for Research in Child Development. For information about the journal, contact Jonathan J. Aiken at 734-998-7310. For copies of the article, contact the Center for the Advancement of Health at 202-387-2829 or e-mail

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