Community Violence: Suggestions for Helping our Children and Adolescents

By Sophia F. Dziegielewski – As times change the possibility of children and adolescents being exposed to community violence increases. Given the recent events of community-related violence and access to world-wide communications –where events around the globe can seem closer than ever — it is not uncommon for parents and caregivers to feel frustrated with how to best recognize the symptoms of distress in their children. Also, once these symptoms are identified, parents may not know where to turn and what can be done to help to increase understanding and problem-solving. This can be further complicated by the parent experiencing his or her own reaction to the event.

When trauma occurs all involved either directly or indirectly can feel the effects and these emotions can range from sadness to intense anger and frustration. Although everyone responds to trauma differently and there are no concrete stages from which all grief reactions flow, there are some similarities that can often be identified and addressed. By addressing these symptoms and reactions as soon as possible after the event, later responses that may develop in the child or adolescent can be tempered in terms of intensity. The resulting aftermath reactions will in turn be more controlled and in many cases reduced accordingly.

Similar to adults, children and adolescents may react to a traumatic event with immediate with responses such as trembling, frustration and anger. Or they may withdraw and say very little almost as if they are too afraid to speak. Signs and symptoms can also result in longer-term results such as social withdrawal where the child or adolescent does not want to engage in social activities or home or work related activities. They may also experience nightmares and either wake up terrified by a dream or refuse to go to sleep as they keep having a reoccurring nightmares.

For parents or caregivers, the best way to address a traumatic event in children and adolescents is to “start where the child is.” Developmentally, some children may be able to process things on a more abstract level where some may only be able to see things more concretely. Either way and regardless of age, after a traumatic event has occurred it is important not to ignore what has happened or hope it will pass by itself. This is why many schools and other organizations offer “debriefing “sessions for children or adults where the individual is encouraged to talk to a helping professional about his or her feelings. Having someone objective and trained in counseling is important as these professionals can help with the adjustment.

Regardless of the age of the child or adolescent, and whether a parent or caretaker feels a professional counselor is or is not needed to discuss the event, the following helpful hints may be of benefit:

  • Never ignore or avoid discussions of the event initiated by the child or the adolescent. Although discussing the event for the parent may be difficult allowing the child to express what he or she is feeling and to express the emotions that surround these feelings is an important part of the recovery process.
  • Children and adolescents need consistency and daily routines help to reassure them that everything has not changed. Try as much as possible to maintain your usual routines and not change your patterns of behavior or activity schedule.
  • Offer to complete activities and tasks with the child. For example, on the way home from a usual routine stop and have a snack together where you encourage laughter and discussion on topics in your life other than the traumatic event that just occurred. This helps the child or adolescent to remember that “life goes on” and that there are still many things in life that will bring them joy.
  • Television, news shows and other forms of media tend to bombard the airways with news related to the event. This repeated and often intense level of exposure may trigger memories of the event or keep bringing it back into direct focus. Limiting as much viewing as possible of these events is important for moving beyond the event and helping to normalize and initiate past routines.
  • Letting go and moving past the event can be difficult for children. Some people find a memorial very helpful in making them feel as if the event is recognized and not ignored. The child or adolescent may want to leave something there and visit the site, etc. before going have the child or adolescent select something to leave. Possibly a short note with their feelings or draw a picture or leave a toy that means something to them. Helping the child decide what to do before attending is important prior to leaving because when at the scene of the memorial strong emotions may be generated making decisions of what to do or leave behind difficult. It is important to prepare prior to going what will be done and what will be left.
  • At times a reaction to a traumatic event may seem delayed and for some it may take a few months to move past it while for others it can be a year or more. Reactions may also be complicated by how close the person was to the survivor. Therefore, after the event has occurred try not to put a time limit on when the child or adolescent should have recovered. Be patient and allow them to process the event at their own pace always staying open and answering their questions and concerns.

Parents often feel like they have to have all the answers for their children. Nothing could be further from the truth! An open-minded parent or caretaker that gives straightforward and easy to understand answers allows for the child to process the event individually which is so important to his or her future adjustment. Ignoring the questions they have or avoiding them is always more problematic than simply stating “I just don’t know and somethings are not easy to understand.”

For more information and some helpful resources on this topic see the following:

SAMHSA (Free Pamphlets)

Tips for Survivors: Coping with Grief After Community Violence


Tips for College Students: After a Disaster or Trauma