CHILDREN’S DIRECT EXPOSURE TO MULTIPLE TYPES OF ABUSE, CRIME AND VIOLENCE
When one thinks of children’s exposure to violence and abuse in the home, that is usually as far as our imagery extends. Nothing else. Either it’s a home where instances of abuse, violence or criminal behaviors occur or IT occurs elsewhere. One instance;one type. Most likely, one accompanies another as co-occurring traumatic experiences for children and family members. Polyvictimization is a much neglected component of child victimization trauma.
Children in the U.S. suffer higher rates of victimization and crime than adults. Actually, 1 in 4 students will experience some type of trauma or victimization before the age of 16, and is directly responsible for a variety of physical and mental health related consequences affecting them well into adulthood.
Efforts to help traumatized and victimized children tend to be fragmented, as they tend to focus on one type of trauma. For example, intervention and prevention programs will focus on bullying, dating violence, sexual abuse, alone. While these are important areas of focus for such programming, it would be most effective to incorporate a holistic and integrated approach to existing and proposed services. By focusing on polyvictimization, teachers, counselors, family and child advocates can provide the best interventions and prevention services.
Children are resilient and many can overcome negative effects of violence and trauma. However, some who are exposed to these events will suffer from traumatic stress long after the trauma has ended. Emotional symptoms such as, depression, anxiety, behavior problems, learning difficulties and attention problems can arise. Physical symptoms including sleep and eating disorders, and even nightmares are often frequent occurrences.
The primary goal of schools is to educate students, and this makes them the most natural places to implement prevention programming strategies,particularly since trauma directly affects the academic achievement of children. Trauma is the greatest cause of underachievement in schools with kids suffering from decreased reading ability, lower GPAs, and higher absences, suspension and dropout rates. Unfortunately, though, not all schools are implementing comprehensive prevention programs-for students AND families/adult caregivers.
It is important to understand that bullying, cyberbullying, sexual assault and abuse, and other types of victimization experienced by kids do not occur in isolation. Trauma-sensitive programming in education usually follows a highly publicized tragic event in a community, as a reaction to a single type of victimization. Focus in school settings should encompass a broad spectrum of victimization and traumatic stress-producing situations and events. Embedded into the guidance program, family engagement services and the general curriculum, as well. Proactive is better than reactive! School staff must become more trauma-sensitive, trauma-focused, and also know what signs to look for, such as:
Young Children (5 and younger)
Young children’s reactions are strongly influenced by their caregivers’ reactions. Children in this age range who are exposed to violence may:
■ Be irritable, fussy or have difficulty calming down
■ Become easily startled
■ Resort to behaviors common to when they were younger (for example, thumb sucking, bed wetting, or fear of the dark)
■ Have frequent tantrums
■ Cling to caregivers
■ Experience changes in level of activity
■ Repeat events over and over in play or conversation
Elementary School-Age Children (6–12 years)
Elementary and middle school children exposed to violence may show problems at school and at home. They may
■ Have difficulty paying attention
■ Become quiet, upset, and withdrawn
■ Be tearful or sad and talk about scary feelings and ideas
■ Fight with peers or adults
■ Show changes in school performance
■ Want to be left alone
■ Eat more or less than usual
■ Get into trouble at home or at school
Teenagers (13–18 years)
Older children may exhibit the most behavioral changes as a result of exposure to violence. Depending on their circumstances, teenagers may:
■ Talk about the event constantly or deny that it happened
■ Refuse to follow rules or talk back with greater frequency
■ Complain of being tired all the time
■ Engage in risky behaviors
■ Sleep more or less than usual
■ Demonstrate increase in aggressive behavior
■ Want to be left alone, not want to spend time with friends
■ Experience frequent nightmares
■ Use drugs or alcohol, run away from home, or get into trouble with the law
What can we do?
Understanding the prevalence and impact of polyvictimization can help families, advocates and practitioners identify the most seriously victimized children and protect them from additional harm. It will also help target intervention and prevention to the full range of trauma-causing events that children are at risk of or have experienced to provide needed services and supports.
Expand Assessment Beyond the ‘Presenting’ Problem
Agencies working with vulnerable children need to ensure that they are not responding only to the “presenting” issue (i.e., sexual abuse) because it is likely that they are also experiencing other types of victimization concurrently (i.e., bullying and physical assaults).
It is critical to recognize the need for more comprehensive assessment to identify them as potential victims of violence and to ensure that their treatment accounts for this possibility.
Emphasize Prevention and Early Intervention
We know that not all children who are exposed to violence require mental health intervention. However, because of their higher vulnerability for problems, children who’ve been exposed to multiple types of trauma, must be formally assessed and referred for intervention when needed. In fact, children and their families should be referred to preventive services, as they may also address individual, relationship and community factors that predict and prevent future exposure.
Provide Comprehensive Services
Treatment and related supports should address the underlying factors for victimization.Reducing stigma and reminders need be strategized and applied to the full range of exposures through developmentally appropriate programming and culturally responsive support services.
Develop Community-Based Partnerships
Services for children exposed to multiple types of victimization and violence must recognize that these kids not only suffer from trauma, but are often stuck in families or environments that may increase the likelihood of repeated victimization. It is therefore best to involve the family, school and work together with other community based providers[e.g. agencies, CBOs, schools, churches…] to assess the environmental conditions Develop strategies to address them, like teaching parenting skills, anger management, self and child advocacy, mental and behavioral health awareness, disseminate information, etc…. Not limited to school or clinical settings, but offer services close to home and in the community. Provide both ‘safe’ and ‘brave’ spaces for children and their families.
Protecting children from abuse and neglect alone is a much too narrow approach to address the ‘whole’ child, because no matter the environmental setting, all children are whole-right then and right there. We mustn’t forget that children are still developing,and their are greatly impacted and influenced by every environment, which includes schools, home, out on the playground. And, whatever happens in one will influence the other.
Break the Cycle
Working with families, the vulnerable and ‘at-risk’ or working with the most vulnerable children and youth, makes it a professional responsibility to help build the protective factors and enhance the capacity of parents, caregivers, teachers, and any adult who may be in a position to intervene and stop the progression toward polyvictimization. Increase awareness of disrupted families, without regard to structure, and be mindful of the communities in which incidents of violence are prevalent. It is under these environmental conditions that we may see early indicators and warning signs of present or future polyvictimization. Proactive is better than reactive!
For more information and resources, please contact the Safe Start Center, a National Resource Center for Children’s Exposure to Violence: