Children of the Colonial War: postmemory and representations
Project was sponsored by National Agency for Sciences and Tecnology (FCT)

Period: October 1, 2007 to May 31, 2011


Children of the Colonial War: postmemory and representations


The Colonial War represents a defining milestone in Portuguese society. It did not take place in the territory of origin of the vast majority of Portuguese soldiers, but its consequences were projected far beyond the generation of those who directly experienced it - it affected the parents who feared the loss of their children, those who suffered the death or irreversible disability of close relatives, the girlfriends or wives of those who left without the promise of return. Also the children of this generation - the children of the men who were in the war - were exposed to a set of circumstances that somehow interfered with their development and their later vulnerability and resilience to trauma.

The project The Children of the Colonial War: postmemory and representations was pioneering in the study of this reality. Anchored on Margarida Calafate Ribeiro's knowledge about the narratives of ex-combatants' wives and Luísa Sales' clinical experience in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder in war veterans, the project investigated the memories of those who experienced the war, their families, and in particular their children, and hypothesized about the increased vulnerability to trauma in the children of ex-combatants.

The project was developed at the Centre for Social Studies at the University of Coimbra between 2007 and 2011, and analysed 130 families, with varying degrees of relation to the war: 51% in which the parents were ex-combatants, 21% with ex-combatant parents who developed post-traumatic stress, and 28% in which the parents did not participate in the war. The study included qualitative and quantitative methodologies of data analysis on the different family members - fathers, mothers and children. A total of 462 people, including 203 children, participated in this study. In addition to an in-depth analysis of the social representation of War by children and the collection of narratives, participants were assessed from the point of view of their mental health and other indicators of possible vulnerability.

We could reflect a lot here on the results of this study. But we will focus on the mental health indicators of the sons of this generation, due to their special relationship with trauma.

The children of men exposed to war with a subsequent diagnosis of post-traumatic stress, the evaluations revealed higher values both of general psychopathology and of trauma symptoms (re-experiencing, avoidance and hyperactivation) when exposed to potentially traumatic situations.The children of men exposed to war but who did not develop post-traumatic stress reacted differently than those of the previous group, showing higher levels of anxiety and a greater tendency to re-experiencing when exposed to traumatic situations.

In the context of childhood maltreatment, children of ex-combatants with post-traumatic stress disorder also scored higher on physical and emotional child neglect compared to children of ex-combatant parents who did not develop post-traumatic stress disorder or who did not participate in the war.

But on the other hand, ex-combatants with post-traumatic stress disorder showed lower values of transmission of their previous child abuse experiences to their own children compared to ex-combatants without post-traumatic stress disorder - who did transmit, to a greater extent, their previous experiences of physical and emotional abuse to their children.

The findings on childhood maltreatment raise significant questions regarding the possible consequences of war on the mental health of future generations. On the one hand, a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress legitimizes a right to legal redress and an acknowledgement of increased family suffering; in this specific context, the ability of parents who, either because of their suffering or inability to relate more closely to their children, may have neglected them, but who may have protected them from possible childhood experiences of abuse, is to be commended. On the other hand, the question of increased transmission of abuse experiences from ex-combatant parents without post-traumatic stress is left open.

The results of the Children of War project, from the point of view of childhood maltreatment, equate to the need to expand the criteria for recognising the family consequences of this war. Perhaps the manifestations and recognition of trauma in these families extends beyond the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress in ex-combatant parents.


Aida Dias

Clinical Psychologist, Researcher at the Trauma Observatory/CES


Between 2007 and 2010, Aida Dias was Junior Researcher in the project Children of War: postmemory and representations.

(This text was originally published in InfoTRAUMA #8, June 2021)



Go to the top