Children and Polyvictimization: Proactive is Better than Reactive!


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:

How Do Schools Support Children Whose Parent Has a Mental Illness?


families diverseBetween one in four and one in five adults will experience a mental illness during their lifetime. At the time of their illness, at least one quarter to half of these will be parents. Their children have an increased rate of mental health problems, indicating a strong link between adult and child mental health. Parental mental illness has an adverse effect on child mental health and development, while child psychological and psychiatric disorders and the stress of parenting impinge on adult mental health. Furthermore, the mental health of children is a strong predictor of their mental health in adulthood.

School children who have a parent suffering from a mental illness, are impacted in many other ways. By nature of their parent’s mental health condition, many children are thrust into adult-like responsibilities at home and in the community and this compounds and potentially compromises the responsibilities they already have as learners at school. With this in mind, children will need extra supports from educators in these settings.

Schools are tasked with providing academic instruction, promoting achievement and maintaining safe and supportive learning environments for all students. The programming and general curriculum should be comprehensively designed to address the ‘whole child’ and age- appropriate developmental, social-emotional and intellectual needs, as well. Addressing needs, specific to the demographics, should be complemented by culturally responsive and evidence-based practices.

In general, parents and children want appropriate understanding and support based on the different needs of individual family members. This support needs to be sustained over time, but should also vary to reflect any change in circumstances.

More specifically, parents want:

  • more understanding, less stigma and discrimination relative to mental health
  • support in looking after their children
  • good quality services to meet the needs of their children
  • parent support groups
  • child-centered provisions and ongoing support and
  • freedom from fear of the removal of their child from the home.

For their children, parents want:

  • opportunities to openly and safely discuss any fears, confusion and guilt
  • opportunities to engage with adults they can trust and participate in activities where they will engage with other children
  • reasonable explanation and age -appropriate discussions surrounding mental health;they need to understand the impact on their parent]
  • continuity of care with minimal disruption of routines, esp. during crises[For schools, this means instructional continuity. Educators aren’t expected to go along as though nothing changed, but rather mindfully provide structure and the routine sense of stability for students.]

Children and young people, and those taking on a caring or adult-like role in the family want:

  • a reliable contact person in case of any crisis events
  • practical help with carrying out added adult-like responsibilities in recognition of their role in the family
  • someone to talk to-not necessarily formal counseling
  • chance to make and see friends.

Using your observational skills, knowledge and experience:

Your skills, knowledge and experience may help in noting
changes in coping, attention and presentation that may
indicate when a child or family is in need of support.
Some possible signs are:
• Poor attendance and/or interactions with others.
• Regression of development and/or emotional maturity.
• Taking on adult caring responsibilities for their parent.
• Worrying excessively about their parent’s welfare.
• Overly shy or aggressive behavior.
• Disturbed or self-destructive behavior.
• Unkempt or very changeable physical appearance of the child.
• Working very hard to obey or please adults, this may appear as ‘perfect’ behavior.

Ways you can assist children

You can help children to develop resilience by:

• Creating a warm and predictable environment in the classroom.
• Enhancing each child’s sense of responsibility and belonging. Assigning a ‘special’ role to a child can help them to feel valued.
• Being available to listen. Children respond well to staff that are genuinely interested in them, even if they know you can’t solve their problems.
• Supporting the child to use the coping skills they have and enhancing their social and communication skills.
• Encouraging and supporting the child to have positive expectations of themself and their family.
• Assisting the child to find age-appropriate information on mental illness.
• Strengthening the child’s self-esteem and resilience by providing opportunities for them to practice and achieve mastery in school related activities.

What to do if you notice changes in the child that concern you:
• Express your observations to the child’s parent(s) sensitively and ask open-ended questions (e.g. “I’ve noticed some changes in your child (or you) lately. How are things going?”)
• Use active listening techniques and reflect back to the parent what they tell you, to be sure you understand. Be calm, open and non-judgemental.
• Offer to help them find support or information. If you feel uncomfortable about talking with the parent, seek help from your school principal, counseling or other school based support staff.
• Schools have access to a range of supports for children and parents. Your school will have clear policies and procedures to support decision-making when there are serious concerns about children’s well-being or safety. This policy should outline your obligations under the child protection guidelines in your
state. When discussing any concerns with parents, consider highlighting that reporting your concerns can often assist the family to access extra support.

Build understanding about mental health and illness within the school community, and include relevant articles in your school newsletter, as well. Display posters and pamphlets in key areas around the building to promote awareness and decrease stigma. Celebrate Mental Health Week and embed such issues in the curriculum. Encourage discussion and read literature pertaining to mental health in the classroom, and include a wide range of books in the school library also.

Building relationships is always important, but with parents who experience a mental illness, the barriers can make this a slower process. It can help to find something you have in common, such as a shared interest. This could be anything (e.g. following the same sport, interest in music or the local community news). Parents have a wide range of interests and experiences. The challenge
is finding something that you have in common to help build rapport between you both.`Be positive, be realistic, be flexible and persevere in your school’s supports for families and children of parents with a mental illness. Include parents and help their child feel included and supported. It does take a village!

How do we support a parent with a mental illness at school?

The facts are that parents suffer from mental illness and due to the nature of and the stigma associated with mental illness, in school settings, parents may feel excluded from the school community. This becomes yet another barrier to engagement and partnerships are thus more challenged to develop. Physical and mental well being are not static conditions. We move along a continuum from well to unwell from time to time. When we are at the unwell continuum of well being, we may require more support from others, in order to help us recover.

Primary, and secondary schools are about more than just the education of students.Schools are the gateway to the wider school community and should be there to provide supports for both families AND their children. Since school staff have no traditional training for engaging families, many educators may need assistance to build their capacity feel better equipped to embrace, interact and collaborate with diverse populations, including helping parents with mental illness feel included and valued at school.

School staff can provide a stable environment for students, help them develop resilience, promote awareness and access to support services, and build the mental health literacy of the entire school community to reduce the stigma of mental illness.

Besides welcoming families to your school, non-judgmentally, schools can develop policies and procedures around mental health that enable parents to feel welcome and find the supports they may need. Schools can use Family Care Plans to guide, monitor and collaborate with other services involved in the family’s life. Increase supports for children, as well, while implementing programs to build social-emotional skills and developing effectively positive coping behaviors.

Help parents feel comfortable talking about their mental illness by:

  • Equipping all staff to work with families from a strengths-based solutions-focused approach, with non-judgmental inquiry within safe spaces
  • Assuring parents, early on, that it is best for you and their child if the school is made aware of any important issues at home which may impact a child in school.

Do not be afraid to use the words, ‘mental illness’, or mental health problems’, when talking to parents. However, never suggest that a parent has a mental illness…ever. Being comfortable openly discussing those things which may affect their child and their family, makes if easier in conversation. You can help pave the way for true partnering. So, although parents may be reticent in sharing information about their mental illness, they will be more inclined to do so when they understand that you are not being nosy or judgmental, but helpful and supportive, in the best interest of their child

It is important that you do not mention a mental illness if the parent has not disclosed or shared their issues with you first. Schools need to know the services available to assist families in the local area, and must communicate clearly to families about the supports and services the school can offer and how to access them. For example, a staff may say to a parent:

” Sometimes when families go through tough times they find that the following are helpful: access to financial support, information about counseling, transportation, after-school supports, etc…. If we can be of any help with any of these, please let me know.”

It is both non-judgmental, you aren’t suggesting that you see a need, and welcoming, in that a door has been opened for future discussion. Invite the possibility that a parent comes to you when a need arises and be prepared to offer feedback and  other attending/listening skills and use your observational skills to ask non-probing, questions based upon your understanding of the parent’s intended message. Reflect or echo/repeat what you hear to ensure that you understand before you offer a response.  Being aware of community-based organizations, agencies and other supportive service providers,  including help from other school-based staff is critical.

Backed by accessible, culturally responsive and appropriate resources, it can be comforting and reassuring to parents when schools and school staff can help not only their children to thrive, but themselves as well. Your school can become and ultimately must become a gateway to the community at large. By facilitating student achievement, promoting parent leadership and by supporting total family wellness, schools embrace the whole child, whole family, and strengthen the whole community!