Enhancing the Mental Health of Young Children-- How educators can respond to children who have been affected by community violence
By Elana P. Cohen, Director, National Child Welfare Resource Center for Family-Centered Practice

This article appeared in the Summer 2001 issue of NHSA's Children and Families magazine along with useful tips. We hope the information will be useful to support children and their families as we deal with on-going violence in our nation's communities and new threats of violence from beyond our borders.

Head Start children are increasingly being affected by violence. They may experience it indirectly by seeing it in the media or by witnessing violence against their friends, their family members, or the people in their communities. Or they may experience it directly by being the victims of violent acts. Either way, these experiences can have lasting effects on their development.

The explosion of violence in some communities, including the string of school shootings in suburban and rural areas, has made this issue a public health concern. As a Head Start or Early Head Start teacher or home visitor, you should be ready to help a child who has been exposed to violence.

How does violence affect development?

We may want to believe that because young children cannot fully understand or lack the vocabulary to talk about violent events that happen around them, they aren’t affected. This is wrong. Even if violent situations are far too difficult for them to understand or they lack the verbal skills to express how frightened they are, they may still experience intense feelings of fear and loss. Babies know their care-givers’ scent, the sound of their voices, the way they hold them, and the rhythm of the day. They notice when these things change. Babies also notice moods: when a caregiver is tense, a teacher is quieter than normal, or a father responds more slowly than usual when they cry.

When faced with traumatic events, young children experience many of the same feelings and thoughts that adults experience, including fear, confusion, and helplessness. But children are more vulnerable because they have not yet learned how to cope with stress and they rely on others for their care and security. Exposure to violence can have adverse social, emotional, cognitive, physical, and educational implications for children of any age, and it can interfere with their basic needs.

Young children need loving relationships with adults. Our adult ability to experience feelings of compassion, to trust, and to love is significantly influenced by the relationships we formed as infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. Brain research has found that witnessing traumatic events can alter a developing brain’s anatomy and chemistry, causing problems with concentration, attachment, and even empathy. In some cases, this alteration predisposes children to impulsive and/or aggressive behavior later in life. This is especially true for children whose lives are also affected by poverty, violence, substance abuse, and/or mental illness.

Young children also need stable environments. These environments must be safe for their physical, emotional, and intellectual growth.

The effects of violence are more traumatizing for children when they know the people involved or when it happens in places that are supposed to be safe, like home or school. For example, hearing a gunshot in the distance, seeing a shooting in the neighborhood, or having a family member directly threatened or hurt by someone brandishing a gun will all have differing effects on a child. The more severe the incident is, the more frequent the child is exposed to violence, and the closer the relationship between the child and the victim or assailant, the more traumatizing the event is likely to be.

Experiencing violence can rob children of something unrecoverable: the ability to be a child.

However, not all children who are exposed to violence become traumatized. Some children’s reactions to catastrophic events are brief, and these children recover without further problems. But all children who witness violence should be watched for signs of physical and emotional distress. Symptoms of trauma do not always occur immediately after the incident but may manifest after a few weeks or after a memory of the incident is somehow triggered.

Nurturing resiliency

The stability of children’s early relationships and the quality of their environments can help serve as a buffer against traumatic experiences. Children who grow up in nurturing and supportive environments are typically more resilient and have more resources available to help them deal with stress, fear, or hardship. On the other hand, lack of stable relationships, substandard housing, or poor health and nutrition are risk factors that diminish children’s capacity to cope with distressing events.

As an early childhood professional, you are in an excellent position to help children who witness violence and their families. You can help even before a traumatic event occurs by working with children on coping skills and by becoming familiar with each child’s unique personality.

There are several things you can do to assist young children in developing resiliency skills. First, help children develop the ability to form healthy relationships. During your daily interactions with children, find ways to show them you value their opinions. When you see them arguing, intervene and help them work together to resolve the problem. This will give children opportunities to not only develop social competency but to also work on problem-solving skills. One of the best ways to teach children good social skills is to model them by forming healthy relationships with the children’s parents.

Children also need to feel confident. You can help boost children’s self-esteem by focusing and acknowledging their strengths, instead of concentrating on their weaknesses. You should enlist their help on activities to make them feel competent and give them a sense of purpose.

With the right guidance and encouragement, teachers can cultivate resiliency in children that will help to prepare them for possible future adversity.

Responding to children who are affected by violence

The key to responding to children who have been traumatized by violence is to help them regain their sense of safety. Following are 10 ways you can respond to their needs by creating environments in which young children feel emotionally and psychologically safe.

  1. Provide a predictable, consistent environment

    All young children benefit from being in nurturing environments that feel safe, predictable, and consistent. By creating this type of environment, you’ll be in the best position to help children regain their sense of security.

    Following a frightening event, children often become agitated or confused. If this occurs, increase the repetitiveness and structure of their daily routines by setting age-appropriate limits and expectations. Children feel more secure when they can understand and follow simple rules. Consistent routines at home and in school give children a feeling of comfort, because they can predict what will happen. And be sure to discuss any changes in their daily routines in advance.

    Healing can begin only when a child feels safe. Along with a safe environment, children need to feel that they have someone to depend on, someone who is responsive and attentive to their needs. When they feel safe and secure, they’ll be able to benefit from the nurturing and enriching emotional experiences you provide.

  2. Understand their behaviors before you punish

    Children who have been traumatized as a result of witnessing violence may react by behaving in ways that indicate stress and fear. Children’s behavior usually has meaning. For the most part, children behave a certain way because they’re trying to get their needs met. Here are some behaviors that commonly result from exposure to violence and ways in which you can help.

    • Regression. Children under stress tend to forget some of the skills they’ve learned and regress back to earlier behaviors, such as bed-wetting, fear of darkness, or thumb-sucking. If you’re working with a child who has regressed, relate to him at the age level he’s regressed to and try to gently help him regain these skills. Do not pressure him.
    • Separation anxiety. Children traumatized by violence may have difficulty separating from their parents or caregivers and become clingy. Be patient and give children extra time and attention during transition periods.
    • Fear. Fear is one of the strongest emotions children experience after a traumatic event. Let children know that it’s okay to be scared and that they don’t need to be brave. Let them know they’re not alone and that you are there to protect and love them. Encourage children to talk about their fears.
    • Rule breaking. Children who have witnessed violence may test rules and boundaries. A daily routine and a few simple, consistent rules and expectations can help. Knowing what is expected from them helps children feel safe. Provide a lot of positive reinforcement when children follow the rules or cooperate. Do not use physical punishment, which only teaches children that it’s OK to use violence to solve problems. Aggression. Children who have been exposed to violence often become more aggressive. Establish a few important rules for the classroom, such as no hurting others. When a child hurts others by hitting, scratching, or other similar behaviors, respond by getting down to the child’s level, looking the child in the eye, and clearly stating the rule forbidding this behavior. Help children understand the consequences of their actions, and help them think of other ways to express their feelings.
    • Nightmares. Nightmares are extremely common after traumatic experiences. To help, work with parents to create conditions that promote sound, peaceful sleep. For example, establish naptime and bedtime rituals and routines. Don’t allow the child to have caffeine or sugar before going to sleep. Talk to the child about her bad dreams, and suggest a better ending – one in which the child is powerful and conquers the bad guy or the nightmare. Go over the good ending before the child goes to sleep. Reassure the child of your love, and assure her that the nightmares will go away with time.

    If these behaviors persist, seek the help of a mental health consultant. Professional advice or treatment for children and their families who have been affected by violence – especially those who have witnessed destruction, injury, or death – can help prevent or minimize long-term symptoms.

  3. Be flexible

    Even though there are many common reactions and behaviors that occur after a traumatic experience, different children will have different needs. Some children will want to be alone, while others will need undivided attention. Try to be flexible and to give children choices. If a child is having difficulty with an activity in the classroom, allow him to work on a less challenging task.

  4. Enhance their self-esteem

    As they experience the joys and stresses of growing and changing, young children often feel insecure. Experiences such as witnessing violence may further add to their feelings of insecurity and decrease their emotional stability. But children who have high self-esteem typically have an easier time bouncing back.

    You can empower children by teaching them to know, accept, and take pride in their accomplishments. Children develop a sense of control in their lives when they experience success and feel accepted by others. And since children imitate the people they look up to, teachers and parents need to find opportunities to model appropriate ways to deal with stress or situations of conflict.

  5. Teach children to express themselves

    Encouraging children to use words to express what they’re feeling instead of allowing their feelings to dictate their behavior teaches them a valuable skill. Begin by discussing with your class common emotions and how people express them. Talk about healthy ways to act when you’re sad, glad, or mad. And when you sense a child is clearly happy, sad, or mad, ask her how she’s feeling. This will help the children to begin associating words and labels with their feelings.

    If a child is able and willing to talk about the traumatic experience, engage her in conversation by validating her feelings and asking open-ended questions. For example, you might say, "That does sound scary. What did you do after you heard the gunshot?" If the child seems uncomfortable, end the conversation and let her know she can talk to you later.

  6. Give children opportunities to express themselves verbally and nonverbally

    Children need a variety of healthy ways to express their feelings. Although some children may feel comfortable and have the verbal skills to simply tell you what’s bothering them, others may need to communicate them through art, story time, dramatic play, and other creative activities. Let children know how glad you are that they are taking the risk of sharing their feelings.

  7. Help children understand that it’s not their fault

    Young children often feel personally responsible for things that happen – especially if their parents or other family members are involved. Reassure children that they’re not responsible and could not have prevented the incident from occurring.

  8. Listen to and support the caregivers

    Perhaps most important of all – let the parents or caregivers know if you observe any change in behavior. You can gain helpful insights by listening to the family’s concerns and asking about the child’s behavior at home. It’s important to be sensitive to cultural differences. In some cultures, for example, expressing negative emotions in public is not acceptable.

    Be considerate of how the families of children who have witnessed violence are coping with the situation. When parents and other caregivers witness violence or are victims of violence, they’re likely to have difficulty being emotionally available, sensitive, and responsive to their children. This is especially true in cases of domestic violence.

  9. Model good conflict-resolution skills

    Adults are in a key position to provide stability for young children. Parents, grandparents, teachers, and other important adults in children’s lives need to make sure they do not engage in violence themselves or teach children through words or actions that violence is an acceptable or effective way to resolve conflicts and disputes. Try to stay calm even in the most trying situations and to demonstrate to children alternative ways of solving problems.

  10. Be aware of your own needs

    In order to help children we must make sure that our own needs are met. We can do this by surrounding ourselves with positive and encouraging people, joining places of worship or groups that offer support, and working to achieve our own goals. And we also do it by helping others and making new friends.

    Helping a child who has been affected by violence can be a frustrating and even exhausting experience. Make sure that you’re taking care of your needs and not trying to shoulder the entire burden. Ask your supervisors, colleagues, or friends for help. And remind yourself that with time and the support of caring, patient adults like you, children will recover and learn to love and trust.

    Elena P. Cohen is the director of the National Child Welfare Resource Center for Family-Centered Practice. She has been developing resources and providing training, technical assistance to Early Head Start, Head Start, and other family support and community-based programs to support families and early childhood staff in promoting the emotional well-being of young children. Using the Safe Havens Training Project educational materials, The National Child Welfare Resource Center for Family-Centered Practice is working with the New York Head Start Collaboration Project, the New York University Quality Improvement Center, and Family Communications Inc. to help Early Head Start and Head Start Programs in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania work with children, families, and staff members who have witnessed violence. For information on the Safe Havens Training Project, contact Family Communications Inc. at (412) 687-2990 or visit www.misterrogers.org.

    ©2000–2002 National Head Start Association. All rights reserved. National Head Start Association • 1651 Prince St. • Alexandria, VA 22314 Tel: 703-739-0875 • Fax: 703-739-0878


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