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Supporting Children Who Have Been Exposed To Violence…

Every child needs stability, affection and proper nutrition to survive and even thrive. When any of these are disrupted, children are likely to display behaviors in response. While you, as a person outside of the child’s home, may not be able to change the individual circumstances the child is encountering, there are still measures you can take to help a child who has or is being exposed to violence.

(1) Be a supportive presence.
Let the child know you care about them, you are interested in what they have to say and you support them in what they are experiencing. Be consistent in your presence in their lives and consistent in your words and actions.

(2) Role model appropriate behavior and relationship roles.
Children learn by observation! These little sponges are taking in everything people around them do (and do not do). Make sure your actions line up with your words. If you are vocal in how you value respect, make sure your actions demonstrate your values–especially in challenging situations. The child witness is very likely to emulate the behavior of those whom they care for and respect. Show the child there is another way to handle difficult emotions and conflict (again role modeling). Children learn by what we do, not as much by what we say. Model healthy and peaceful ways to resolve, transform or manage conflict and difficult emotions.

Model healthy boundaries and healthy relationship values. Demonstrate patience, compassion, understanding, equality, accountability and honesty. It is easy to tell someone not to do something or how not to act or be treated. Yet, the “not to do’s” are a poor road map to success. Show the child “how to” treat people and how to expect to be treated. Show them by how you treat others and how you allow yourself to be treated.

(3) Allow a child to tell their story in a safe place/safe way.
(For the younger child)

“Play” is the way children attempt to make sense of what they are learning and try to understand the world around them. It is (or at least should be) their safe place to “practice” life. So when life looks unsafe, play is often the place children will retreat to in an attempt to understand challenging situations and/or feelings. Allow children to explore these scary feelings or situations, without interfering. When the child is ready, be there for the child to talk about their play.

(For the older child)

Allow the child to tell their story in their way. Just listen. Though we often have the need to make things feel better, the greatest gift you can give someone in pain is to just listen to what they have to say. No judgment, no minimizing and no “fixing” the situation–just listen.
(4) As possible, allow time/opportunity/referral for child to engage in activities for enrichment.
All children are unique individuals, and they all come with their own set of interests. Allowing a child to identify an interest/hobby/sport/activity/group and pursue it has many potential positive outcomes. The child has the ability to develop positive relationships with peers or adult mentors (depending on the interest). The child has the ability to forge a sense of belonging/ identity in a positive way. ( i.e. Identifying as a great baseball player, or a spelling bee participant, or a great actor–as opposed to “the child from that home where they are always fighting.”) Allow the child the opportunity for achievement, which will thereby create an increase in the child’ self-esteem.
(5) Make sure the child knows he/she is not alone. Others feel the way they do and experience similar circumstances. Most importantly, let them know what they have seen, witnessed and or experienced IS NOT THEIR FAULT!
Trauma and traumatic experiences can change the children who have been exposed. While we cannot control what all children experience and the effects of those experiences, we can provide support to the children. Through support we can be a positive influence in their lives.

[1]    University of Alberta Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry (2011, September 23). Some brain wiring continues to develop well into our 20s.
[3]    National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (2005). Excessive Stress Disrupts the Architecture of the Developing Brain: Working Paper #3.
[4]    Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics (2008, September 1). pp 667-673. Understanding the Behavioral and Emotional Consequences of Child Abuse.
[5]    The Child Witness to Violence Project ( )

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