When violence rocks a household, most often a woman bears the blows. But even if they’re just onlookers, children can become victims, too.
Some youngsters are amazingly resilient—after witnessing the horrors of domestic violence, they grow up without suffering from trauma.
In other cases, children don’t get over what they see at home. Their exposure to violence scars them mentally and emotionally, and the damage can last a lifetime.
As school starts in the United States this fall, an ambitious national campaign will address the effects of domestic violence on children. Its goal is to raise awareness among adults who work with them, including teachers, coaches and social workers. The campaign will complement existing programs that help young people build resilience.
Typically, traumatized youngsters not only experience fear, but they also may lack a feeling of control over their lives.
“Their ways of looking at the world get shaken,” says Lisa Jaycox, a behavioral scientist at RAND Corp. “Domestic violence can disrupt children’s basic ideas about safety, about who can be trusted and about their own competence to handle things. It can change their trajectory into adulthood.”
If untreated, the effects of trauma can multiply. Toddlers often regress developmentally, according to Dara Pearson, a domestic violence therapist in Bend, Ore. A painful example of this frequently occurs when children visit with their fathers who aren’t emotionally or physically safe. “Even if the kids are toilet trained, they come back and need diapers again,” Pearson says.
Older children may withdraw, lash out in anger and fail in school. Traumatized teens often engage in risky behaviors earlier than their peers.
To help these children, counseling centers offer specialized therapy aimed at healing trauma. But the service isn’t available in all communities, and even if it is, many struggling families can’t access it.
Obstacles range from lack of transportation to the prohibitive cost of counseling. Another major factor: Parents victimized by domestic violence are often too overwhelmed to get their children to therapy on a regular basis.
To fill this critical gap, help is being delivered to youngsters where they already are—in places like schools and domestic violence shelters.
Some programs train counselors to provide on-site therapy, while others educate teachers, health care providers and other professionals who serve children.
This fall’s public awareness campaign, called Changing Minds, is designed to get people on the front lines personally involved with traumatized youths.
“A caring, consistent adult is the No. 1 protective factor for children’s healing,” says Leiana Kinnicutt, program director at Futures Without Violence, a nonprofit organization working to end violence against women and children. “That person can be a coach, a teacher, anyone in a child’s life. The more relationships children have, the better off they are,” she adds.
Through direct mailings, Changing Minds will share concrete, scientifically proven actions professionals can use as they interact with children. “We know the impact of childhood trauma on the brain,” Kinnicutt says. “We offer gestures and acts that can help heal the brain.”
Effective actions include listening to children’s concerns, suggesting ways to improve their coping skills and helping them build positive peer relationships. Even greeting children by name every day can help them feel valued, according to “Everyday Magic: 16 Ways Adults Can Support Children Exposed to Violence and Trauma,” a report edited by Kinnicutt.
To reach as many people as possible, Futures Without Violence and the Department of Justice are partnering with a variety of professional organizations, including the National Education Association.
Another program offers hands-on training sessions so adults can work more successfully with traumatized children. Known as Child-Adult Relationship Enhancement, the program is aimed at nonclinical providers such as parents, foster parents, school personnel and staff at domestic violence shelters.
“CARE offers some education about trauma and about behavioral strategies,” says Erica Messer, a pediatric psychologist at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. “We teach basic skills, like ignoring attention-seeking behavior and recognizing positive behavior right when it happens.”
CARE is the offspring of Parent-Child Interaction Therapy, a counseling program that helps families whose children have more severe behavioral problems.
“We don’t think every child needs intensive therapy,” says Messer, who developed CARE. “Instead, we teach strategies that help prevent problems.”
These problems often start with children’s excessive anxiety and attention-seeking behaviors, such as whining and sassy back talk. “But if left untreated, they quickly can turn into aggressive behavior,” Messer says.
CARE training is delivered in one or two sessions. “The adults role-play and receive coaching right on the spot,” Messer says. “They say they already do these things [using positive reinforcement, etc.], but when they try the skills, it’s harder than they thought. The live feedback helps them realize the importance of practicing.”
So far, CARE providers have been trained in 24 states and in Japan. The skills also are taught on several Marine Corps bases in this country.
Traumatized children often have trouble verbalizing their pain, so A Window Between Worlds uses art to help. AWBW trains leaders to work with youngsters and adults in a wide variety of settings, such as schools and domestic violence shelters. The program currently is used in 300 venues spanning 30 states.
“Children often don’t have the words for what they witness and experience,” says Program Director Olivia Piacenza. “Art can be the most gentle way to make sense of their feelings. The leaders collaborate with the children and help guide their process. It helps children find the safety to relax and be children for the first time.”
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