First Aid & Emergency Know-How: Helping Kids Cope With Violence
A child expert shares how children can persevere despite great odds.
Ignoring children's fears can destroy their ability to be hopeful, says Betsy McAlister Groves, author of Children Who See Too Much. As founder of the Child Witness to Violence Project at Boston Medical Center, Groves works with children who see violence firsthand in their homes and communities. Here, she shares what she's gleaned from kids who persevere despite great odds.
Q: How does exposure to violence transform children's views of the world?
A: Kids who are raised in violent environments grow up to see the world as a hostile, unpredictable place. They accept violence as a part of life and have a hard time letting down their guard.
Q: Is this also a danger for children who've seen graphic images of the terrorist attacks and the war in Afghanistan?
A: Although it's more emotionally upsetting to witness violent acts firsthand, seeing the attacks on TV or hearing about them can also disturb children. The key factor affecting your child's response is your own reaction. Kids look to you to see how they should react. So you have to think about what you say and how you act in front of your children.
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Q: How do young children understand violence?
A: Traumatic events are more psychologically upsetting when they're initiated by people as opposed to natural disasters. Seeing adults cause harm and act violently confuses them and affects their ability to trust others.
Q: Which kids, in your experience, remain hopeful and resilient, even in the worst of situations?
A: Children are hopeful when they have someone they can discuss their fears with. An adult who believes in a child -- whether a parent, relative, or teacher -- provides hope. Children with active problem-solving abilities also do better. I remember a 4-year-old who had seen a lot of violence in her neighborhood. She lined up her stuffed animals around her bed so they could protect her while she slept. She found her own solution to her fear of going to sleep.
Q: What advice do you have for parents?
A: You can encourage your children to speak openly about their feelings and to share experiences. Try to understand their fears and worries, and provide realistic but positive reassurances. Ask what they want to be when they grow up, and be supportive. Helping kids think optimistically about the future ultimately makes them more hopeful about life.