As a boy his father had terrorized the family. Although their dad was never overtly violent towards the kids, JD and his siblings had spent nights cowering together, hiding from the sounds of their parents fighting, sounds that always ended with the echoes of blows landing, their mom crying, pleading, begging their dad to stop.
The silence that filled the home in the wake of the violence was almost worse than the mayhem had been.
As the oldest, JD felt it was his responsibility to protect his little sisters and his mom. The anxiety and stress of home life, plus the burden of holding what he saw as his family’s shameful secret, made his stomach hurt. He left home as soon as he could and never looked back; it took him years before he realized he had taken those childhood feelings along with him.
“Really, it wasn’t until my son was born that I realized how much my childhood was still impacting me. The feelings surfaced and just about overwhelmed me. I couldn’t understand why I was so sad and angry at a time when I should have been happier than ever before.”
Survivors like JD are all around us. Our children are growing up in a violent world. More than 60 percent of kids in the U.S. have been exposed to crime, abuse, and violence – many in their own homes.
Repeated exposure to trauma and violence can disrupt brain development and increase the risk of serious illness, psychological issues, and dangerous behavior later in life. Research shows that trauma can impact children’s brain function and structure, permanently impacting their cognitive, emotional and behavioral development. Without early intervention this developmental disruption can lead to behavioral and physical health problems, including depression and anxiety, drug and alcohol abuse. Without appropriate support these children are more likely to run away from home, engage in unhealthy sexual behaviors, and commit or be victims of crimes.
Kids are also experiencing violence among their peers. In the most recent Boulder County Youth Risk Behavior Assessment, 21% of high school boys and 13% of girls reported being in a physical fight at least once in the past year, and nearly 11% of girls reported being physically hurt on purpose by someone they were dating during the past year.
The goal for youth violence prevention is simple—to stop youth violence from happening in the first place. But the solutions are as complex as the problem.
Prevention efforts should aim to reduce factors that place youth at risk for perpetrating violence, and promote factors that protect youth at risk for violence. In addition, prevention should address all types of influences on youth violence: individual, relationship, community, and society. Effective prevention strategies are necessary to promote awareness about youth violence and to foster the commitment to social change.
SPAN’s programming supports youth and children at every level. For instance, SPAN’s Counseling Program, both at Shelter and through the Outreach Center and Tri-City Programs, focus on early intervention for children impacted by violence. Children are given age-appropriate information about the dynamics of abuse and violence, with the intention of helping them understand their own experiences, and to reduce the shame and isolation so often experienced by families impacted by violence. SPAN’s counselors also work with children and their non-abusing parent, usually their mothers, to improve their connections to one another, since research shows that this is the number one way of improving the child’s emotional well-being and sense of being safe, stable and secure. The Outreach Counseling Program and the Community Education Program at SPAN are also collaborating on offering a weekly support group for self-identified boys and young men who have been impacted by violence. This group uses arts-based activities to give participants opportunities to explore their own experiences and to examine our society’s narrow definitions of masculinity.
SPAN’s primary prevention program is called Peers Building Justice (PBJ). PBJ is one of only a handful of violence prevention programs in Colorado that receives funding under the auspices of the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment (CDPHE) Sexual Violence Prevention Program. Using the public health approach, the SVP Program strives to provide the infrastructure for planning, implementing and evaluating comprehensive, culturally-relevant, strength-based primary prevention programs that build protective factors known to mitigate the risk for sexual violence. The PBJ Program benefits from the work SPAN has done through the CDPHE-supported Boulder County Shared Risk and Protective Factors Project (SRPF). Today’s PBJ Program is based on the SRPF Project’s specific findings that the most effective way to engage youth in positive change was through activities that explore how dating and sexual violence are sustained by systems of power and control in our community, and by engaging youth in arts-based events and projects to build youth power and create transformative discussions in a social justice framework.
Youth violence prevention and supporting the needs of children who have been impacted by violence are critical to the work of creating a future without violence.
Photo credit: Capture Queen