Children and Trauma

Mother and sons
Photo by DAIS

Children’s exposure to violence in their homes, schools, and communities is all too common. In the United States, children are exposed to a higher rate of violence and crime than are adults.1 While we know children react in different ways, for many children, exposure to violence leads to trauma.

Over the years, focus has increased on the effects of trauma on children, including witnessing domestic violence. Exposure to trauma erodes children’s sense of safety and can be harmful to their physical, behavioral, cognitive, emotional, and social development. It can also have a negative impact on children’s brain development and functioning due to the high stress levels children experience in these situations.

Like all humans, children are biologically driven toward survival. Therefore, children who experience violence are more likely to use the specific regions of the brain involved in survival. Those regions then become stronger and more efficient, which leads to survival as a primary focus in the lives of traumatized children.

Some specific effects of trauma on children’s brain development and functioning include IQ suppression, delays in neural cognitive development, and delays in intellectual development. These effects often lead to longer-term problems, such as academic difficulties, adjustment difficulties, increased risk for anxiety and other mental health disorders, premature aging, and heightened neural activity or hypervigilance toward potential threats.2

Photograph provided by DAIS

However, with proper prevention and intervention strategies, there is good reason to hope that children will heal from trauma. The most effective treatment services must be trauma informed, culturally competent, evidence based, and involve caregivers. Strengths-based and resiliency-oriented interventions can also help reduce the negative impact of trauma on children.

DAIS provides crisis-based children’s services to families that are utilizing residential (shelter) or community-based services (legal advocacy, community response, and support group). Services include parenting support and advocacy around child and family-related issues identified by clients and through family-safety planning. Group activities that are based on specific themes, such as self-esteem, feelings, safety, and nonviolent conflict resolution, are provided, as well as recreational activities that encourage bonding between children and the protective parent.

Dane County has many competent resources that help those who have experienced trauma regain a sense of safety as they recover. The Children of Violent Homes Project is an ongoing collaborative initiative involving DAIS and three other Dane County human-services organizations dedicated to lessening the effects of family violence on children.

• The Rainbow Project - therainbowproject.net

• Family Service Madison - fsmad.org

• Briarpatch Youth Services - youthsos.org

Founded in 1988, the project’s main goal is to provide comprehensive services to all family members affected by violence in the household. Services include crisis intervention, family counseling, trauma treatment, violence-prevention education, support and education groups for victims and perpetrators, and advocacy for family members from homes in which domestic violence is present.

Photograph provided by DAIS

Here is one family’s story highlighting how treatment services can work.

Jase and his mother, Katherine, were referred to The Rainbow Project after at least two years of ongoing domestic violence between Jase’s father and Katherine. At the time of referral, Jase, 6, was suspended from school for physically attacking his gym teacher after being given a time-out for back talk. Katherine reported similar physical behavior from Jase at home and noted he would use similar language to his father when doing so.

Initially, the therapist developed a safety plan with the mother, which involved a coordinated effort with advocates at DAIS. Jase’s therapist at The Rainbow Project used Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy with him. This began with skills building and psychoeducation about trauma (specifically domestic violence) and its effects.

After that, the therapist worked with Jase to write a trauma narrative, which helped Jase become desensitized to his traumatic experiences in incremental segments. Once the narrative was completed, the therapist helped Katherine prepare to listen to Jase, sharing his narrative, so it could be done in an appropriate and supportive manner. After completing the narrative, the therapist helped Katherine with hands-on skills building around parenting, which was customized around Jase’s unique needs.

After approximately 10 months, Jase was doing much better in school, and Katherine reported feeling increased confidence in her parenting of him. Shortly thereafter, the family was discharged after achieving their treatment goals.

Photograph provided by DAIS

With the support from the community and trauma-informed practices, it’s possible to strengthen children’s inherent resiliency and help them recover from trauma.

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers—so many caring people in this world.” —Fred Rogers

1 Finkelhor, D., Turner, H. A., Ormrod, R., Hamby, S., & Kracke, K. (2009). Children’s exposure to violence: A comprehensive national survey. U.S. Department of Justice.

2 Baker, L., & Campbell, M. (2012). Exposure to domestic violence and its effect on children’s brain development and functioning. Learning Network Brief (2). London, Ontario: Learning Network, Centre for Research and Education on Violence Against Women and Children.

Darren LeCount, LCSW , is the Clinical Manager at The Rainbow Project, Inc. Karen Larson is the Children’s Services Manager at DAIS. Darren and Karen are members of the Children of Violent Homes/Youth Issues subcommittee of the Dane County Coordinated Community Response to Domestic Violence Task Force.