The world today is much more chaotic and volatile than past years and the chances a child will witness some type of violence during their childhood years is more likely. How parents respond to their children who witness violence can affect how they will heal from the trauma.  

Media. There are several ways a kid may witness violence.  By far the most common is via media.  In the United States approximately 99% of the households have at least one television Children in War; Photo courtesy of the U.S. Marine Corps, Photographer: Lance Cpl. Michael E. Juneau Jr., Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Photo courtesy of the U.S. Marine Corps, Photographer: Lance Cpl. Michael E. Juneau Jr., Source: Wikimedia Commonsset.[1]  The average kid will annually witness about 12,000 acts of violence on television.[1]

Domestic violence. Statistics on domestic violence are estimated at best because many who are in domestic abusive situations fail to report the abuse.  An estimated 22% of adult women have been abused at least once by a male partner.[1]  There is little accurate data concerning abuse in same gender relationships. As it is, millions of children witness or experience domestic violence in their homes.  Domestic violence occurs in all economic levels, all racial and ethnic homes and both urban and rural environments.

Community violence. Though random violence occurs anywhere, it is more prevalent in urban areas where resources are limited.[1]  According to Child Witness to Violence Project,

“A study of elementary school children in New Orleans found that over 90% of the children had witnessed violence; over half had been the victims of some form of violence; 40% had seen a dead body. In Los Angeles, it is estimated that children witness 10 to 20% of all homicides. Interviews with parents of children age six and under at Boston Medical Center (formerly Boston City Hospital) found that 1 in 10 children had witnessed a knifing or shooting by the age of six.”

Symptoms a Kid May Exhibit

It isn’t always easy for caregivers to connect their kids' change in behavior and the impact of an event where they witnessed violence.  Many kids can be affected in all arenas of development.  The signs of psychological distress may be hard for caregivers to understand.  However, clinical experience and research indicate kids who are exposed to violence are affected by the event.[2]

Signs a child may be experiencing some trauma from witnessing violence include:

  • sleep disturbances;
  • physical pains such as headaches or stomach aches with no medical cause;
  • an increase in aggressive behavior;
  • hypervigilance;
  • worry about the safety of loved ones, especially parents;
  • loss of skills previously learned such as naming colors and toilet training;
  • withdrawal;
  • repetitive play enacting violent events;
  • difficulty concentrating; and
  • flat affect (does not show any emotions).

What Can Parents Do?

Parents at times do not know just what to say or do when their kids witness violence and display symptoms of trauma.  The following are the top five steps to help Helping Kids Cope; Photo courtesy of the U.S. Marine Corps, Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Photo courtesy of the U.S. Marine Corps, Source: Wikimedia Commonsparents respond appropriately:

1. Validate the child’s feelings. Kids need to know what they are feeling is “normal” and valid.  Reflecting back the emotions help them to understand their feelings and be “okay” with having those emotions or feelings. For example, if a child appears to be frightened, parents can say “That sounds scary.” 

2. Consider the effects of the child’s story on others.  Are other kids listening and do they already know about the violent event?  What exactly do they know? Adults need to use common sense and good judgment about whether to have a group discussion about the incident and when it is more appropriate to discuss it one on one. Adults can give simple and honest information without revealing graphic details.  Kids need to know it is okay to talk about the incident.

3. Give the children permission to tell their story. If the child is willing to talk, facilitate storytelling with neutral questions such as “what happened next?” or “Do you know the person who got hurt?”  If the child is unwilling or uncomfortable talking further about the incident, it is important to respect his or her right to talk to the level of comfort with the topic.

4. Model for the child.  When adults model the appropriate expression of feelings, it frees kids to express their feelings.  An adult might say “If I had seen that I would have been really scared,” or “I saw that happen once and it was really scary for me.”  These types of statements give children permission to feel those feelings; it lets them know it is “okay” to feel those feelings.  It might also name the feeling for the child.

5. Be available. Kids are not always prepared to talk about an incident right away. Adults need to create opportunities for children to talk but not force them.

In addition, caregivers must ensure kids they are safe and adults will do everything they can to make sure nothing happens to them.  Kids need to feel what they say is being taken seriously and it is important.  Start with what the child knows, and take the opportunity to clear up any details to ensure the child has no distortions which are confusing him or her and adding to the Counseling May be Needed; Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Source: Wikimedia Commonstrauma. Other details do not necessarily need to be revealed to kids. Adults need to use good judgment in how much and what additional information they give to kids.

Any suggestions to help parents respond to their children and violence would be remiss if it was not mentioned some children may need the help of a professional.  Many times the trauma of witnessing violence is so intense for children, they benefit from a professional mental health therapist or counselor.  Parents need to be aware if their children’s behavior changes in a way that inhibits healthy functioning.  If those behaviors continue after parents’ efforts; it may indicate a need for professional help.


The copyright of the article Top 5 Steps for Responding to Children Who Witness Violence is owned by Cheryl Weldon and permission to republish in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.

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