Although children can suffer serious consequences from exposure to violence, there is hope: With timely awareness, effective intervention, and consistent support from people who care, children can heal from the trauma of their experiences.
Many children have strong coping skills and other traits that help them "bounce back" from traumatic incidents. However, some children—particularly those who experience long-term maltreatment or multiple forms of violence (known as polyvictimization)—need help to succeed on their path to recovery. Foremost among the protective factors associated with children’s resilience are—
Every person in a child’s life can make a difference. We all have a role to play.
The first step is identifying children who need help. Occasionally, a child will disclose an abusive situation to a trusted adult. Other times, the violent circumstances in a child’s life may be evident—perhaps to a neighbor who lives in the same dangerous community or a police officer who responds to a domestic violence call. Teachers may observe behavioral changes; doctors may notice bruises or scars. In most states, child-serving professionals are mandated by law to report suspected child abuse or neglect to a child protection or law enforcement agency. In some states, every individual is required to report.
When a report is filed with child protection or law enforcement, multiple agencies may respond, each with its own potentially conflicting views on how best to proceed. In many communities, multidisciplinary teams of law enforcement officers, child protection workers, victim advocates, prosecutors, and health and mental health professionals ensure that varying perspectives are heard and considered when deciding the best course of action for a child.
Fortunately, allied professionals can choose from an array of evidence-based interventions to ease the impact of trauma on children, including home visiting programs and individual and parent-child therapies. Dependency courts can ensure that maltreated children and their parents receive appropriate, evidence-based treatment.
Other justice system professionals as well acknowledge their role in addressing the needs of children exposed to violence, whether a child enters the system as a victim of, witness to, or offender of violence or maltreatment. Child advocacy centers provide a safe environment in which members of multidisciplinary teams can interview young victims and witnesses, ascertain their needs, direct them and their families to appropriate services, and prepare them for court if needed. Judges and probation officers redirect youthful offenders to diversionary programs that address the needs arising from exposure to violence while holding the youth accountable for their own unlawful actions. Leaders have found that even in juvenile detention facilities that house more serious and repeat offenders, rehabilitation is far more effective than punishment in reducing recidivism.2
Evidence-based curricula are also available to help schools teach and model effective ways to prevent bullying and dating violence. Most educators are well aware that exposure to violence can undermine a child’s ability to learn. Many schools have introduced programs to ensure that every member of the school community—teachers, administrators, custodial and kitchen staff, parents, volunteers—understands the impact of trauma on learning and has the skills to recognize and respond to students’ behavioral cues.
Communities everywhere are finding ways to help their young members grow up free of the trauma and fear that accompany exposure to violence. Faith-based organizations, cultural groups, and youth-oriented social groups can offer pro-social activities and welcoming environments where children can interact with adults they can trust and learn to shed the defensive instincts that may shield them from danger but also lead them into delinquency and trouble with the law.
The ultimate goal is to foster a trauma-informed community wherever children are—at home and at school, in social groups, and in shelters, group homes, and detention centers. By interacting with children and youth in ways that acknowledge the violence in their lives, we can help them recover from the trauma they’ve experienced. We all have a pivotal role to play.
The videos in Through Our Eyes highlight effective ways to identify, intervene, and work with children and youth who are exposed to violence in their lives.
National Child Traumatic Stress Network
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
Child Welfare Information Gateway
Defending Childhood Initiative
Building Resilience in Children and Youth Dealing With Trauma
Building Resilience: The Power to Cope with Adversity
Preventing Child Maltreatment Through the Promotion of Safe, Stable, and Nurturing Relationships Between Children and Caregivers
Resilient Girls—Factors That Protect Against Delinquency
Resilience Guide for Parents and Teachers
2M.W. Lipsey, J.C. Howell, M.R. Kelly, G. Chapman, and D. Carver (2010). Improving the Effectiveness of Juvenile Justice Programs: A New Perspective on Evidence-Based Practice. Washington, DC: Center for Juvenile Justice Reform. http://njjn.org/uploads/digital-library/CJJR_Lipsey_Improving-Effectiveness-of-Juvenile-Justice_2010.pdf