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Children encounter many types of violence, from collective events like war and natural disasters to individual tragedies like accidental shootings, interpersonal violence, car accidents and illnesses. Research has found that just like adults, kids’ reactions vary widely. Most kids are frightened and anxious at first but those feelings fade with time and support. Others suffer longer-term problems, like re-experiencing the event, depression, withdrawal and anger, that are signs of post-traumatic stress.
What is trauma?
Emotional trauma is a response to an extreme event that is painful, shocking and upsetting. The event creates emotional memories deep in the brain. In general, the more direct the exposure to violence, the higher the risk for emotional harm. But even secondhand exposure can trigger trauma that may not become obvious for days or even weeks after the incident. Kids who have suffered previous abuse or who lack family support are more likely to have trouble recovering.
How do kids react to trauma?
Children 5 and under: Reactions can include fear of being away from a parent, crying, immobility, trembling, clinginess and screaming. They may regress to earlier behaviors, such as thumb-sucking, bedwetting and fear of the dark. Young children are strongly affected by how their parents respond to the event.
School-age children: Kids may withdraw, have trouble concentrating or act out with disruptive behavior. They may have nightmares or irrational fears, refuse to attend school, get in fights or complain of stomach aches and other physical ailments. They might avoid places that remind them of what happened.
Teens: Adolescents can experience flashbacks, nightmares, emotional numbing and depression, and may become antisocial. They may turn to drugs or alcohol, have academic problems or lose hope in the future and feel suicidal. Adolescents may feel guilty about being unable to prevent the violence or might fantasize about revenge. They may rebel against everything in the face of a world that no longer makes sense.
Kids do best when they are allowed to express their feelings, get plenty of reassurance from adults and return to normal routines as soon as possible.
But some will need professional help.
Danger signs include kids who continue to avoid places/situations that remind them of the traumatic event, who appear “emotionally numb” or suffer disturbed sleep and other physical problems for longer than a month after the event.
Post-traumatic stress affects an estimated 2 percent of adults and children after a natural disaster to almost 30 percent after a terrorist attack or plane crash.
Violence shatters children’s view of the world as a safe place and their belief that adults will protect them. Journalists can help adults recognize and respond to kids’ emotional pain by providing information about post-traumatic stress, sharing their stories and providing a voice for our littlest citizens.
When children are victims of violence, journalists have a responsibility to report the truth with compassion and sensitivity.
A 40-page guide to help journalists, photojournalists and editors report on violence while protecting both victims and themselves. Click here for a Ukrainian translation.
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The Dart Center is a project of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.