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by Emily Bowen and Amanda Mahnke (written for Futures Without Violence)
Every day, too many children and youths are exposed to violence in their homes and in their communities. Studies suggest that 15.5 million children in the United States witness domestic violence annually. According to a 2009 study, more than one of every three American children will by age 17 have been exposed to domestic violence. More than 60 percent of all children and youths had witnessed or experienced as a victim at least one act of violence in the past year. Nearly 50 percent experienced a physical assault that year.

While trauma and exposure to violence can affect children in a variety of ways, many children are not traumatized or permanently harmed—a sign of resiliency. Resilience is an amalgam of “genetic predispositions and personal, familial, and environmental risk and protective factors,” according to Sir Michael Llewellyn Rutter, sometimes called the father of child psychology.

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Take care of yourself, Reach out, and Listen are 3 of the 16 habits Futures Without Violence lists and describes for dealing with children who have experienced trauma.

A child’s protective factors reduce the effect of stressful and traumatic events on that child’s life. Protective factors promote resiliency and include individual strengths (for example, conflict resolution skills, temperament, and the ability to make sense of difficult experiences), family strengths (such as strong child–caregiver relationships, a physically and mentally healthy caregiver, and a stable living environment), and community strengths (role models, safe places to play in one’s neighborhoods, a positive school climate and feeling connected to one’s school, and mentors who create safe, nurturing environments). Children need consistent, supportive, and loving adults who create resilient environments.

Providing care and support, you can be a powerful force for good in children’s lives. Notably, in your supporting role, you should never pressure a child to relive or disclose his or her traumatic experience. Follow her lead on the level of detail she chooses to share.

Futures Without Violence, developed by Defending Childhood, 16 recommendations for fostering the strong relationships and safe, nurturing environments that support that resiliency. The recommendations are designed to help kids exposed to trauma and violence, but they could also be useful to help all kids develop resilience for current and future challenges. Following are three of the most basic recommendations.

Take Care of Yourself
Working with children can be uniquely rewarding. But it is also hard work. This is especially true of working with children exposed to trauma, violence, or adversity.

Dealing with difficult behaviors can be stressful. Listening to a child’s traumatic story can be troubling in the extreme. Sometimes listeners can become traumatized vicariously.

Vicarious trauma, also called secondary trauma, can be defined as the emotional impact of hearing trauma stories and becoming witnesses to the pain, fear, and terror that survivors have experienced. Vicarious trauma can lead to compassion fatigue, numbness, trouble sleeping, hyper arousal, and other physical or emotional issues. Working with children who have experienced trauma can also trigger your own past experiences with violence or trauma and can interfere with your ability to support and engage with certain children or youth.

Beyond these specific stressors, we all face stress and anxiety related to work, finances, and family. Violence in the media (including on the Internet) can also add to this stress and become overwhelming for adults as well as children. Sometimes it can be easy to allow stress to seep through into other parts of your life.

Remember that children are observant. They notice if you are irritable or impatient with them or with other children or adults. Taking care of yourself will help you be at your best—calm and caring—to meet the needs of children you encounter each day. Make self-care a priority: get enough sleep, exercise, or talk to a trusted friend, faith leader, or mental health professional to process and manage your stress.

Reach Out, Connect, and Support
Kids exposed to trauma may become socially isolated and not receive the social support they need. So check in regularly with the children you encounter each day.

Studies have found that feeling supported by others strengthens resiliency in children. Something as simple as greeting a child by name (or, in some indigenous cultures, by a kinship term) every morning can make him feel seen, known, and valued. By creating a welcoming environment, you can help a child develop a sense of belonging in his community.

The children who need us most often push us away the hardest, so continue to try to connect. Think about your role in relation to this child’s life, and make that role supportive and involved.

Be a Good Listener
In your day-to-day interactions with children, listening sympathetically and respectfully shows a child that she is heard and valued. Actively listening—showing “interest, empathy, and availability”—shows a child you respect her and can prevent her social isolation. Establishing an emotional, nonjudgmental connection with a child is a way to build her trust in you.

When it comes to discussing trauma, allow the child to take the lead and set the tone of the conversation. Some children may not wish to discuss what has happened to them. Do not pressure a child to talk; she may not wish to share, and it is not your responsibility to make her do so.

To read and download Futures Without Violence’s full paper Everyday Magic: 16 Ways Adults Can Support Children Exposed to Violence and Trauma, visit here.

Contact Us
Send questions or feedback about the newsletter to Bass Zanjani, Project Director, OJJDP’s Youth Violence Prevention Technical Assistance Program, at or Bass Zanjani, project director, at 301–951–0056. If you haven’t already, subscribe.

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The National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention Newsletter is prepared under Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) Cooperative Agreement No. 2014–MU–MU–K021 with Development Services Group, Inc. The views, opinions, and content of this newsletter do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or policies of OJJDP.