When a child is exposed to real-life violence or aggression, there are a number of things adults can do to help them deal with it. This chapter outlines some of the common problems that arise and provides tips on how you can help kids through them.

Different help strategies for different types of violence

The type of comforting you should offer kids will vary depending upon the type of violence a child is exposed to. So parents and teachers need to be aware of the differences between acute exposure and chronic exposure.

As stated by Fick, Osofsky & Lewis (1997, p. 265), “Acute episodes of violence often require normal children leading normal lives to make a situational adjustment, and interventions typically consist of reassuring the child that he or she is safe and things are back to normal. Chronic conditions of violence and danger, however, involve a developmental adjustment, and with extreme trauma, a child may exhibit symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), similar to those seen in war veterans, including alterations of personality and major changes in patterns of behavior. Exposure to chronic violence or danger also causes a change in the children’s interpretations of their world as they seek to develop a framework for making sense of the ongoing danger. With children exposed to chronic violence and danger, interventions typically seek to build upon children’s primary relationships to create a new positive reality for them, with at least some sense of safety, trustworthiness of adults, and the world.”

In other words, kids who witness isolated acts of aggression need help processing the event and getting back to normal. For kids exposed to chronic aggression, however, violence is their normal. These kids need help separating themselves from their environment, establishing a healthy psychological framework for the world in spite of their surroundings.

Things that can help every child

1. Stay close by and make yourself available. Children exposed to violence may want to shadow you for a little while, so allow for a little extra clinginess in the aftermath of a violent event. If you have the flexibility to do so, try to take some time off to spend with them.

2. Whether it was an isolated incident or the latest saga in ongoing violence, one simple thing many parents can do is walk their child to the bus stop or school, or drive them there. Research shows that only 37% of urban kids report feeling safe when walking to school. (Fick, Osofsky &Lewis, 1997) So it’s an area where adult presence can provide an added sense of security.

3. Try to limit media exposure to violence, especially in the days and weeks immediately following a violent event. Violent imagery of any type can trigger flashbacks to what they witnessed, strengthening the traumatic memory and potentially making symptoms of PTSD worse.

Help for children exposed to acute or isolated violence

1. Try to restore a sense of normalcy as soon as possible after the event. Get back to stable routines with as little disruption as possible, which will help reassure kids that everything will be ok.

2. Talk with them about how rare such events are, and how they’re likely to only experience one such tragedy in their lifetime. Therefore the worst is probably over. Reassure them that this was a one-off incident that is unlikely to happen again.

3. Help them understand what went wrong in this particular case. It will usually offer some degree of solace and comfort.

Helping children exposed to chronic violence

1. A break from the normal often helps kids exposed to chronic violence. If they’ve been living in a violent neighborhood and then something hits especially close to home, getting away for a while can provide a chance for healing.

2. Try to create ‘islands of normalcy’ within their world that offer some reprieve from the chaos. For example, enrolling kids in some type of structured program such as dance or martial arts classes, or finding quality after-school programs can help. Even taking day trips to the park on the better side of town or some other excursion can provide kids with an escape from the chaos. Activities in nature are especially helpful for at-risk urban kids.

Both stress and aggression are infectious, which means violence tends to cluster within certain homes, neighborhoods, or communities. Stepping outside the normal climate can expose children to other role models and alternate world views that they don’t normally have access to. You’ll find thousands of stories in which a child’s life has been changed by something so simple as a nature retreat or weekend apprenticeship. In one instance of being exposed to something outside their normal world, their eyes were opened to new possibilities about how to behave, what to value, and what life can be that didn’t exist in their normal environment. For children exposed to chronic violence, such islands of normalcy serve as a source of stability and provide an alternate model of human behavior.

3. Along the same lines, adults should help nurture productive hobbies and skills in kids exposed to chronic violence. Not only do these activities relieve stress, but productive and pleasurable endeavors always serve as a counterbalance against violent and destructive ones. Continue to try out different things until you find something that does interest them.

4. Children who live in chronically violent neighborhoods often come to believe that they don’t have a future. In some areas, the majority of adolescent males do not expect to reach 25 or 30 years of age. Worse yet, they have the idea that those who do survive all end up in prison. This is a serious problem that can affect their entire trajectory in life. If you expect to die before 25, what’s the point of getting good grades, going to college or planning for the future?

It’s the job of parents and teachers to help every child envision a future for themselves. After all, even in the most violent places, the majority of kids WILL survive well into adulthood. Equally as important is that you help outline a path that can get them there. Dreams for the future do no good if you haven’t a clue about where to start working towards them.

5. Don’t avoid the topic of violence; discuss it on a routine basis. Ask them if they’ve seen anyone get hurt lately, or inquire about how their friends are doing. The more openly you talk about violence, the more you can help kids separate themselves psychologically from the world around them.