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  • Jane Kelhod

Trauma Through a Child's Eyes

Secondary Trauma l Effects of Witnessing Domestic Violence

By: Mandy Chitwood

Have you or someone you know ever witnessed an act of domestic violence before without being directly impacted by it?

Whether you’re a parent, teacher, counselor, or a loved one, it hurts to see a child you care for deeply being exposed to trauma. Many young survivors experience symptoms of secondary trauma and grow up without even realizing it.

Secondary trauma is defined as trauma that a person experiences not due to something that has happened to them directly, but rather due to some indirect connection to a traumatic experience.

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), 1 in 15 children are exposed to intimate partner violence each year and 90% of these children are eyewitnesses to this violence.

In this blog article, we are going to focus on the impacts of secondary trauma on children and how to help guide them to become resilient afterwards.

Understanding Secondary Trauma

Witnessing or being the victim of violence, serious injury, or physical or sexual abuse can be very traumatic. When children have a traumatic experience, they react in both physiological and psychological ways.

Immediate exposure to intimate partner violence may include child traumatic stress.

Child traumatic stress is defined as the emotional duress that results when an individual hears about the first hand trauma experiences of another. Its symptoms mimic those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Trauma reactions may look different to each child.

Some children do not show obvious signs of stress and haven’t developed their own or young children may react differently than older children.

Children affected by secondary trauma may find themselves re-experiencing personal trauma or notice an increase in arousal and avoidance reactions related to the indirect trauma exposure.

Not all children experience child traumatic stress after experiencing a traumatic event.

With support, many children are able to recover and thrive.

It’s important to recognize the signs of traumatic stress and its short- and long-term impact.

Let's take a look at the different ways trauma can impact children.

Preschool Children:

● Fear being separated from their parent/caregiver

● Cry or scream a lot

● Eat poorly or lose weight

● Have nightmares

Elementary School Children:

● Become anxious or fearful

● Feel guilt or shame

● Have a hard time concentrating

● Have difficulty sleeping

● Thumb sucking or bedwetting

Middle and High School Children:

● Feel depressed or alone

● Develop eating disorders or self-harming behaviors

● Begin abusing alcohol or drugs

● Become involved in risky sexual behavior

● Lose interest in friends, family, or activities they used to enjoy

● Nightmares or other sleep problems

As you can see, traumatic reactions can have a variety of responses.

Other long term impacts may include intense and ongoing emotional upset, depressive symptoms, anxiety, behavioral changes, difficulties with attention, academic difficulties, nightmares, physical symptoms such as difficulty sleeping and eating, and aches and pains, substance abuse, victimization by an intimate partner, low self esteem, among others. Some of these children may even develop ongoing symptoms that are diagnosed as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Although not every child will experience any of the symptoms listed above, it’s unlikely that any of us are immune from exposure to trauma.

To learn more about child traumatic stress, please visit the National Child Traumatic Stress Network website at

Tips for Helping Children After the Event

There is hope that children can recover from domestic violence traumatic events.

When a traumatic event happens to children, your comfort, support, and reassurance can make them feel safe, help manage their fears, guide them through their grief, and help them recover in a healthy way.

A critical part of children’s recovery is having a strong support system, service and systems that are trauma informed, and access to therapy or treatment programs that are trauma informed.

Children coping skills may include:

● Breathing exercises or calming methods.

● Awareness of triggers.

● Having a supportive system.

● The help of a trained professional.

What you can do to help:

● Act calm. Most children look to adults for reassurance after traumatic events. Assure the child that he or she is safe.

● Do not discuss your fears or anxieties with them.

● Look for natural openings to have family discussions about the traumatic event. It’s always best to learn the details of a traumatic event in a safe place.

● Listen. Children can have certain viewpoints about the situation and may need to talk through their feelings that may be troubling or confusing to them.

● Maintain routines as much as possible to help them reassure that life can be okay amidst the chaos and change.

● Limit or prevent exposure to violence on TV, newspapers, or the radio.

● Watch for signs of trauma and know when to seek help.