How violence affects young children

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An article published Oct. 21, 2014 in The Plain Dealer and cited Hanna Perkins Education Director Barbara Streeter in explaining why children who are victims of violence have such varied reactions.

The article noted: “A child’s reaction to violence is difficult to predict and depends on a number of variables, Streeter said. But it’s where the child’s brain is in terms of its development that plays a larger role in how such trauma will impact children later in life.”

The article’s launching point was a news story from the previous week, in which three boys were robbed at gunpoint of snacks and ice cream. The article, available here, indicated violent crime against children seems to be on the rise in Northeast Ohio.

Recognizing the limitations of a brief news article to address such a topic fully, Streeter also offers this elaboration:

Victims of violence have been subjected to an overwhelming experience of terror and helplessness. Generally speaking, younger children have fewer coping skills and less ability to make realistic sense of what has happened to them than older children.

Younger children have trouble differentiating fantasy from reality and rely on magical thinking in order to cope. They may resort to directing their anger at their parent for not being there to protect them, or to only being able to be with others when cloaked in the fantasy that they are a superhero.

Somewhat older children may worry that they did something wrong which caused the event to occur; and if they could identify what they did wrong, then maybe they could make it right. This idea may seem more comforting to some than trying to come to terms with the fact they were helpless to prevent what happened.

Others resort to warding off the helpless feeling by turning the situation around and terrorizing others – being the perpetrator instead of the victim. Some become crippled by their anxiety, afraid to venture out and try new things.

But what is most common among crime victims of any age is that the feelings of terror and helplessness don’t go away.

Children need the support of family – and often that of professionals – to come to terms with the experience and learn to cope with the feelings in a more realistic way. Otherwise, they may be unable to give up their initial, less-than-adequate modes of coping. This, in turn, impacts their lives well into adulthood – and in some instances results in a pattern of warding off the feelings associated with the victimization by becoming a perpetrator.


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