ANNUAL REPORT - 17 July 2023

Year in review – what was 2022 like for children and young people without or at risk of losing parental care?

The International Annual Report 2022 has just been published. This extract shows how our work connects to issues facing the children and young people we are here for. For more information on our activities from the year and to read the full report, click here.

In 2022, the COVID-19 pandemic started to abate, but its longer-term impact remained. Even more worrying, new global crises emerged. How did this affect children and young people growing up alone or in families at risk of breakdown? What can we do to support them to cope with the pressures and build resilience?

On 28 October last year, the Financial Times published an opinion piece by the historian Adam Tooze under the headline “Welcome to the World of the Polycrisis.” A few days later, Collins dictionary announced its 2022 word of the year: permacrisis.

A year of crisis

Both terms convey the barrage of compounding crises the world contended with in 2022: the human cost of the COVID-19 pandemic and its deepening psychological, social and economic fallout; the devastating war in Ukraine and its knock-on effects on food, energy and fertilizer supply; rising inflation and poverty levels; the alarming pattern of record-breaking droughts, heatwaves and floods. Not to mention continuing conflicts in countries such as Syria, and growing inequality.

As these shocks reverse years of progress in implementing the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which was already lagging behind, children and young people today face an increasingly unstable, unjust and insecure future. In 2022, for example, the number of children in need of humanitarian assistance rose by 20%.[1]

But for those without or at risk of losing parental care, crisis unfortunately is nothing new. Losing a caregiver or growing up in a family on the verge of breakdown are uniquely disturbing experiences that can pose a serious threat to a child’s development and well-being. The trauma associated with such experiences can last well into adulthood,[2] and when combined with external stressors – such as conflict or natural disaster – that risk is increased manifold.

When it comes to finding a way through crisis, grief or hardship, the importance of secure relationships and a support network cannot be overstated. Having a trusted person to lean on is crucial to maintaining good mental health and to regular learning, growth and development. As the world continues to be rocked by emergencies and more children and young people are deprived of a stable environment and family, it is vital that other sources of support are made available, especially those that foster trusting relationships.


More children on their own

According to data from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) 324.3 million people were in need of humanitarian assistance in 2022. This number is estimated to rise. Climate change, violent conflict and worsening economic conditions are major factors causing destruction and forcing people to leave their homes. Globally, more than 450 million children (or one in six) are living in a conflict zone[3] and, of the 108.4 million people forcibly displaced worldwide, 43.3 million are children.[4]

And many of them are on their own.

In Europe, for example, as many as 71% of all refugee and migrant children who arrived in 2021 were unaccompanied or separated from their families.[5] UNHCR estimates that the global figure is 153,000. These children are at risk of violence and exploitation. Additionally, being separated from their caregivers can have a detrimental impact on their emotional and psychological health. But the same holds true vice versa. A recent study on the mental health of unaccompanied minors on the move recorded that regular contact with family and the prospect of being reunified is a crucial factor for mental well-being.[6]

The legacy of COVID-19

In addition to the onslaught of crises seen last year, the effects of the pandemic are still being felt. According to Imperial College London’s COVID-19 Orphanhood calculator, by the end of 2022, 10.7 million children globally had lost primary or secondary caregivers to COVID-19. Of these children, around 7.7 million lost one or both parents. Many are now at higher risk of multiple adverse factors including lack of quality care, mental health issues, poverty and worse quality of life in adulthood.

The COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions resulted in a decline in the development of early childhood skills and significant learning losses among older children. Among young people, employment and wage losses measured early on have still not recovered in some countries. When it comes to mental health, the distress caused by the pandemic was felt all over the world, with young people and women among the worst affected groups.[7]

The events of 2022 shaped the focus of our work with children and young people without or at risk of losing parental care. We intensified, for example, our work in humanitarian action, responding to crises such as conflict in Ethiopia, drought in the Horn of Africa, war in Ukraine and mass flooding in Pakistan; we increased entrepreneurship activities with young people; and made mental health a priority across the board. This included establishing a Global Programme Expert Group on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support, which researches and publishes on the topic, among other efforts.

The insidious effects of stress

The damage that extreme, prolonged and repeated stress does to any human being’s physiology and psychology is well documented. But it is particularly dangerous to a child. Research indicates that childhood adversity causes a cascade of biological changes that are linked to serious health and social problems well into adulthood, such as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress, problem substance use, aggression, difficulties in forming social attachments, cardiovascular disease, or obesity.[8] In fact, in a study conducted in 21 countries, it was found that childhood adversities account for 29.8% of all mental health disorders.[9]


The likelihood that a child or young person in alternative care has gone through such experiences is far higher than the average. Making sure the care they receive is trauma-informed is crucial to their positive development. Through initiatives such as our EU-funded project, “Safe Places, Thriving Children – Embedding Trauma-Informed Practices into Alternative Care Settings,” care practitioners can be equipped with the tools and knowledge required to understand trauma and address the needs of children and young people affected by it.


Intergenerational trauma

Unsurprisingly, the impact of childhood stress is often intergenerational. It can contribute to harmful parenting attitudes. Parents’ or caregivers’ mental health difficulties can become a source of stressful experiences for their children, perpetuating the cycle of adversity. What is more, a parent’s traumatic experiences may cause changes in a child’s gene activity before the child is born.[10] Therefore, working with children and young people to mitigate the impact of adverse childhood experiences helps not only this generation of children, but the next generation as well.

Mental health support in crisis

By March 2022, the war in Ukraine displaced 6.5 million people internally and caused 3.5 million refugees to flee to neighbouring countries. According to UNICEF, 1.5 million of them were children. One of the key focuses of our response was mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS). Mobile teams of psychologists provided MHPSS services to 17,000 people in Ukraine – both children and parents.

In Poland, we added “TeamUp” to the range of activities offered. Developed by WarChild Holland, this psychosocial initiative is designed for working with unaccompanied minors in emergency situations, encouraging them to process emotions through play and other movement-based activities. It has already been used successfully by SOS Children’s Villages in Greece, Italy and Sweden and this year was adapted in the context of the war, providing structure and a social network to displaced children and young people and thus reducing stress on caregivers.


Supporting the mental health of parents

What is undeniable is that the more emotionally and mentally healthy the parent, the higher the likelihood the child will have a safe and nurturing environment to grow up in. As Aleksandra Sikorska, SOS Children’s Villages psychologist in Poland, explains: “When caregivers are scared or worried, children are scared and worried even more.” Every day we see this in action in our programmes – the better equipped parents are to navigate stressors, the less stress and negative experience the children take on.


Building resilience

Protective childhood experiences can have just as much cumulative impact over time as adverse ones. Experiencing unconditional love, having friends, being part of a community and being able to learn in an enriching environment are all examples of factors that can help mitigate the harm of childhood adversity. According to an article published in ChildTrends,[11] “research shows the strongest protective factor linked with resilience to childhood trauma is the reliable presence of a sensitive, nurturing, and responsive adult.” This is why it is so vital to restore the systems of protection – relationships and resources – that will help both children and adults develop their resilience in the face of trauma.

This holds as true in large-scale disasters as it does in crises occurring at the level of a single person or family. For children and adults who are forced to flee their home, this means providing them with timely access to mental health support and stress-relieving activities and restoring children’s access to education and social interactions as soon as possible. For parents who are finding it difficult to provide the care and support their children need, this means access to counselling for unresolved trauma, parenting skills development, or economic supports. For children who can’t live with their parents, this means providing supportive, enriching environments where they can form attachments and build trust.

While governments and policymakers can and should address social programmes and other systemic solutions, we can all contribute to restoring and nurturing the relationships that protect the futures of children and young people growing up alone.

"The strongest protective factor linked with resilience to childhood trauma is the reliable presence of a sensitive, nurturing, and responsive adult."


[2] Ceccarelli C et al. (2022), Adverse childhood experiences and global mental health: Avenues to reduce the burden of child and adolescent mental disorders.

[3] Children affected by armed conflict and violence, OHCHR.

[4] UNHCR - Refugee Statistics.

[5] UNHCR (2022), Refugee and Migrant Children in Europe - Accompanied, Unaccompanied and Separated.

[6] Derluyn I. et al. (2022), Impact of Flight Experiences on the Mental Health of Unaccompanied Minors on the Move. The ChildMove Project.

[7] World Health Organization (2022), World mental health report: transforming mental health for all.

[8] R F Anda et al. (2006), The enduring effects of abuse and related adverse experiences in childhood.

[9] Kessler RC et al. (2010), Childhood adversities and adult psychopathology in the WHO World Mental Health Surveys.

[10] Yehuda, R and Lehrner, A (2018) Intergenerational transmission of trauma effects: putative role of epigenetic mechanisms. World Psychiatry 17.

[11] Bartlett, J and Steber, K (2019), How to Implement Trauma-informed Care to Build Resilience to Childhood Trauma.

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