Talk targets kids who’ve witnessed violence
Betsy McAlister Groves has spent the past 20 years trying to help young children recover from the violence they experience, and she had a number of suggestions Thursday of ways her audience of about 300 in Baton Rouge can help traumatized children.
In the early 1990s, however, she was stumped as to do what to do in such circumstances.
A mental health coordinator for a day-care center at Boston Medical Center, Groves recalled how one day she and other hospital staff put a dozen young children, ages two to five, in a van to head home. And then a nightmare became reality: A man was stabbed with a knife in the middle of the street. Worse, the children saw it all.
Hospital staff met after all this, confused about what to do when the children returned to day care. They turned to an equally confused Groves for guidance.
“I had no idea,” Groves confessed to the audience gathered in the ballroom of the Crowne Plaza hotel. “What does a 2½-year-old understand? What does a 5-year-old understand?”
They decided to take their cues from the kids during their play the next day, but the children weren’t talking about what they had seen. The teacher decided to break the silence and asked the kids about the day before.
“The kids began to ask questions. What happened? Why did that man stab that other man? How much blood is in the human body? Was he sewn up? What does that mean?” Groves recalled. “What we were heard the kids ask about contains all the lessons we’ve learned about how kids struggle with these issues.”
One lesson is that not talking about such traumatic events represented a “conspiracy of silence” by adults, she said.
Groves is the latest speaker in the Academic Distinction Fund’s distinguished speaker series, a series that has focused heavily on the importance of early childhood.
Groves is a lecturer with the Harvard University and is director of the Child Witness to Violence Project wat Boston Medical University. In 2002, she wrote a book, “Children Who See Too Much” —the title of her talk Thursday.
The project works with children who have witnessed acts of violence and are referred to the hospital by law enforcement, educators and social workers. These children are no older than 6 years old and have typically seen domestic violence, although older children tend to see more street and community violence, she said.
Groves discussed what she described as a growing body of research, especially in studies of brain development, suggesting that children who witness violence at an early age suffer immediate and long-term consequences. For instance, repeated exposure to violence can change the structure of the brain, raising cortisol levels so the children are “always turned on.”
“These are the children that are hyper, that are always running around the classroom, they have trouble settling down,” she said. “This is actually a physiological response.”
Such trauma, however, can be fixed, Groves said.
“It’s not all over by age 3,” she said. “We are blessed with very plastic, malleable brains and there are ways we can make it up.”
The more resilient children witnessed less violence, had more cohesive families and their mothers had not had repeated violent relationships with men, Groves said. In addition, the mothers of those children responded better to stress and had less trauma and depression, she said.
“The solution is that we all must come together as community to support families who are affected by violence,” she said.
The Child Witness to Violence Project, however, starts not with the community but the parents themselves. They are indispensable, especially with young children.
“In many ways, helping the parents is as important as helping the child. Maybe more important,” she said.