Youth Exposure to Violence Necessitates Staff Readiness

A young person sits next to an adult on a couch who is taking notes

An unfortunate reality of working with young people is the need to acknowledge that violence is part of many children’s life experiences. Youth could be exposed to violence at school, at home, or in their neighborhoods. Violence may take the form of a single, terrible event or may be part of the backdrop of their daily lives. While many excellent organizations are dedicated to preventing violence, the reality of its existence in the lives of children means that staff in youth-focused programs need to be prepared to handle the impacts of violence and support the young people with whom they work.

A teenage girl sits against a wall looking at the ground

The first step in helping staff support youth in this context is to have systems in place to recognize when youth are experiencing and responding to violence. While not every person will respond in the same way, looking for changes in behavior, risk tolerance, or social groups can signal staff or program leaders to ask appropriate follow up questions. Regular check-in points built into youth programs can create opportunities for kids to speak up about ongoing issues and make sure they’re getting the help they need. Staff or volunteers should receive training and regular updates on legal obligations, such as mandated reporting, program policies, and community-specific, culturally-appropriate resources for engaging with topics related to youth experiences with violence.

A small boy stands in front of some trees

Although programs have a responsibility to look for trauma responses in the youth they serve, not every staff member or program volunteer can take on the task managing a young person’s healing or meeting all of their needs. It’s important that programs seek external help when dealing with issues outside the scope of their expertise. Mental health care providers, social workers, and other professionals should be brought in to help youth who have experienced or are currently experiencing violence in their lives. This ensures that young people receive appropriate, professional-level support and helps to avoid staff burnout and protect reasonable boundaries in programs that aren’t designed to provide ongoing trauma-informed counseling. Seeking external support can also avoid retraumatizing staff who may have similar childhood experiences to the young people with whom they work.

Two people sit on a couch, one comforting the other

Finally, it’s important for youth-focused programs to recognize the unjust systems that lead youth from marginalized communities to be disproportionately exposed to violence and trauma. Youth of color, girls and gender minorities, LGBTQ+ youth, young people with disabilities, and those from families experiencing poverty or homelessness are more likely to experience physical, emotional, or verbal violence and less likely to receive the care they need to appropriately process the resulting trauma. Programs should be prepared to support youth with a range of identities and experiences.

A line of youth stand against a wall and smile

No single organization or program leader can prevent all violence in the lives of children or provide the necessary healing for all those who have already experienced trauma. However, it’s important to help staff identify when a young person may be responding to violence, provide them with training related to their responsibilities when they learn of ongoing issues, and have resources on hand to refer youth to appropriate forms of support. This is no easy task, but NRF provides workshops and other resources related to trauma-informed practices to our grantees. Learn more about our workshop last year with The Trauma Foundation.