Understanding the Problem

Children exposed to violence and other potentially traumatic events is a national issue. Estimates of the number of children in the U.S. who have experienced at least one adverse childhood experience, like exposure to domestic violence or community violence, range from 33% to 55%.

Through decades of research, we now know that childhood exposure to violence and other traumatic events can have both short- and long-term consequences. In the immediate aftermath of violence, caregivers may notice changes to a child’s behavior, including their sleeping and eating routines. The effects may ripple out to changes in the child’s relationships with family members and peers as well as differences in their academic performance and participation in other activities. Without intervention, traumatic events in childhood can also lead to long-term health problems (e.g., diabetes and heart disease), decreased educational and occupational opportunities, and even early death.

Although this information can sound pessimistic, it is important to highlight that children are also amazingly resilient. When children receive support and consistency in the aftermath of a traumatic event, these actions can help mitigate the effects of their trauma exposure.

Recognizing the Signs

After going through a scary experience, children’s behavior may change. Common signs seen in children who have been exposed violence include:

  • Changes in play: repetitive acting out or recreating traumatic events during play; less able to play spontaneously and creatively
  • Distractibility: trouble concentrating at school or home
  • Hypervigilance: worries, fears, overreaction to loud noises or sudden movements
  • Increased or constant worry about possible danger or the safety of loved ones
  • Increased activity level
  • Increased aggressive behavior and/or angry outbursts
  • Increased separation anxiety: child gets very upset when they need to separate from caregiver
  • Regression: loss of skills learned at an early age, “babyish” behavior
  • Numbing: showing no feelings at all; not bothered by anything
  • Body-based complaints: headaches, stomachaches, other aches/pains with no clear medical cause
  • Sleep difficulties: frequent waking, nightmares, and/or fear of falling asleep
  • Withdrawal: loss of interest in friends, school, or other activities the child used to enjoy

If you notice several of these signs in your child or if any change(s) seem to be getting in the way of your child being successful at home or at school, or if any of these changes have persisted for several months, it can be helpful to reach out for additional support. 

How to Help

In the stressful aftermath of traumatic events, it is important to remember that there are simple things that can be done to support children. These small steps can make a big difference in their lives. Here are some of the ways that you can support a child after a difficult experience:

  • Build self-esteem in children. Children need daily reminders that they are loveable, competent and important.
  • Give children permission to tell their stories. It helps children to be able to talk about their experiences with trusted adults.
  • Give clear, simple explanations about scary events. Young children think differently than adults. They do not really understand the true causes of traumatic experiences and will often blame themselves.
  • Healing begins with relationships. A helpful, supportive adult is the most powerful tool that we have to help children feel safe.
  • Help children know what to expect. Have rules and routines so that children can predict what will come next.
  • Take care of your own physical and emotional needs. Find someone to talk to in a safe, confidential setting about your worries.
  • Teach alternatives to violence. Help children learn to solve problems and play in non-violent ways.
  • Don’t try it alone. Just as children are not meant to make sense of these difficult experiences by themselves, caregivers also benefit from having supports available to them.
  • Model nurturing behaviors. Caregivers are the most important people in a child’s life. Act as a role model for your child and encourage other important caregivers to do the same.