Assisting Child Victims

Angie McCown
Victim Services Director
Texas Department of Public Safety

All of us who work in the field of victim services are witness to the loss and trauma that young and old alike suffer when they or one of their family members is victimized. Historically, children have been the forgotten victims, forgotten by the system, forgotten by the general public. Their response to the victimization is ignored. Their experience, however, is real, and how we assist a child during this fragile time could have an impact on the rest of their lives.

Childrenís understanding of trauma and/or death and their experience of grief differ widely, depending on their age, developmental state, personality, family and cultural background. Often their grieving may be unacknowledged because it looks different from that of the adults around them. They often express themselves through their behaviors, their play, and sometimes very quietly and privately. The adults in their lives often need help in understanding the unique ways that children grieve. They may be confused about the best way to respond to the reactions of children. This confusion can come from the adultís discomfort with trauma and death, which is shaped by the denial prevalent in our larger culture.

When appropriate, it is important to educate the adults in a childís life about how to help them cope. As Victim Services Providers it is important that we help to facilitate this, rather than solely taking on the task of helping children cope. Therefore in order to be able to support children through grief and trauma, we can help the adults examine their own history of loss, as well as their current reactions to the victimization. Many of them have losses that have not yet been mourned or that are easily triggered by new losses. Understanding and awareness of this will enhance their ability to help children cope.

It is important to recognize that each child and family is unique and each will react in an individual way. However that there are some general guidelines that can be considered when working with children. Children naturally self sooth and desensitize themselves to pain by not staying in a negative emotion for too long. This means it would not be unusual for a child to cry one moment and be ready to go out to play the next. Childrenís reactions depend upon their state of cognitive and emotional development. They have a tendency to re-experience the loss or trauma over time as they move through the different developmental stages, allowing them to understand the event differently.

Children younger than seven tend to think in an imaginative, magical way. They need gentle explanations about what has happened. Children this age may have more of a tendency to act out their feelings and reactions in play, and may require more structure and reassurance. They may have a more painful reaction when they are old enough to understand the event more concretely.

Children between the ages of seven and eleven tend to be interested in more detail. They may exhibit more acting out behaviors such as aggression, somatic complaints, and school phobia. They need honest and clear answers in a language they can understand, as well as validation of feelings and reassurance that they are not to blame.

Parents often fear giving fully honest answers out of a concern that they will scare their children. While this concern is understandable, experience shows that when children donít know the truth they sometimes make up a far scarier explanation or blame themselves. Once children become adolescents they have a new depth of awareness that makes life more meaningful to them, which can bring with it a new level of pain and anxiety in response to trauma or loss.

Teens become more curious about the philosophical and spiritual questions surrounding trauma and loss. They may experience some acting out behaviors, as well as more risk-taking behaviors such as alcohol or drug abuse. They need appropriate parental openness in sharing feelings and help in learning to manage their feelings. They typically respond well to support groups with peers.

As victim services providers we cannot take away what happened to a child victim, as much as we might like to be able to. We can however listen, believe, tell them that it was not their fault, and let them know how sorry we are. We can also support the adult caregivers in their lives so they can assist the children as they move through the trauma and loss of their victimization.