A blog post about how trauma like witnessing DV affects youth, and how TF-CBT, a trauma treatment program, can help.
DJ, a local teen, witnessed domestic violence in his family and felt voiceless. There was no sense of safety to express himself. He didn’t think anyone would ever care about what he had to say.
We often hear the belief that “domestic violence just affects the two people in the relationship – teens and children don’t see or hear it”– but that simply isn’t true. DJ’s feelings of powerlessness are unfortunately a common scenario for children and teens who witness domestic abuse.
Studies show that when children experience or witness traumatic events, it often affects their entire lives.
According to studies of Adverse Child Experiences (ACEs), children who experience ACEs such as witnessing violence are more likely to experience chronic disease, mental illness, violence, and be a victim of violence in the future (link to S+SS Aces article). Additionally, childhood exposure to domestic violence costs the USA an estimated $55 billion a year, which includes lifetime medical costs (both physical and mental), lower educational levels and as a result, lower wage earning (Holmes, 2018).
The good news is that children (and adults) can and do heal from trauma.
At Safe+Sound Somerset, our clinicians use an evidence-based treatment program called Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT) to help children, teens, and their caregivers address and heal from the trauma of domestic abuse and violence in their families. This service is available at no charge for Somerset County residents.
Studies have shown that TF-CBT is more effective in helping children overcome trauma than other therapeutic interventions; about 90% of our families report that it is effective. In 12-16 sessions, children and their non-offending caregiver process trauma with a trained professional and learn to cope with behavioral and emotional issues. This key S+SS program helps heal the family unit; the non-offending caregiver and child can heal individually and in their relationship. TF-CBT helps people move forward in their lives and also prevents future trauma.
For example, DJ himself experienced this turn around. While going through TF-CBT at Safe+Sound Somerset, he received education about domestic abuse and healthy relationships, created a safety plan, and learned skills to manage his overwhelming emotions.
DJ felt empowered to use his voice for the first time in all areas of his life. He came to realize his opinions and needs were worthy. He also began to express fear and sadness to safe family members without judgment, and spoke up in school when he needed help and about racial injustices. With his mom as a support, the family advocated for changes in the classroom. By healing from the trauma of domestic violence, this family also worked against the trauma of racial injustice.
Continue reading for more details about trauma and how the TF-CBT program works.
What effect does trauma have on children and teens?
People who experience or witness violence can develop intense fear when they are reminded of their experiences, so they may avoid talking about what happened. As a result, children and teens often isolate themselves from friends, family, and activities they once enjoyed. This is similar to what DJ went through.
Often, children and teens who have experienced trauma “act out” in times of stress or confusion, which can affect different parts of their lives, including learning (link Learning and DV article here). They may also be numb to emotion, have difficulty staying still or sleeping, and develop a general mistrust of others. They can experience extreme mood changes, trouble concentrating, and low esteem, which can lead to substance use and/or a desire to hurt themselves or others.
A child or teen showing one or several of these behaviors is at high risk for conflicts and lack of communication in school and with parents and peers. If these symptoms are not treated, they may not follow normal child development.
What can TF-CBT do?
Overall, TF-CBT can lessen symptoms of anxiety, depression, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in children and teens. TF-CBT is flexible to fit each child’s needs, developmental stage, and unique way of learning. A child or teen will work with a trained clinician through education, safety planning, relaxation and coping skills, emotional expression and regulation, processing of traumatic event, and caregiver support.
TF-CBT includes individual sessions for the child or teen, individual sessions for the non-offending caregiver, and joint sessions between caregiver and child. A caregiver’s participation can make all the difference, just like in DJ’s story. Caregivers often ensure that children improve quicker, and this combined work strengthens the family bond.
TF-CBT allows families to heal and gain adaptive skills. At Safe+Sound Somerset, we offer trauma-specific counseling for children, as well as adults, to heal from their experiences with domestic violence and provide a pathway to positive outcomes.