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Understanding How Community Violence and Trauma Impact Teens

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October 24, 2016 09:26 am


Students who entered school this fall were not able simply to enjoy their summer or the start of a new academic year. They, like the rest of us, had to witness a series of violent acts that gained national attention—the deadliest terrorist attack since 9/11 on a club in Orlando and high-profile shootings in St. Paul, Dallas, Baton Rouge, Tulsa, and Charlotte—as well as an untold number of additional shootings that affected communities, family members, and friends. Moreover, historically underserved students are more likely to witness and experience violent acts firsthand in their communities and face a greater risk of exposure to violence.

Exposure to and fear of violence, such as gun violence, domestic violence, or physical bullying, can traumatize individuals and impact the social and emotional behavior of students at home and in school. To ensure that students who have experienced or witnessed traumatic events receive appropriate academic support and counseling, parents, caregivers, and school personnel must understand how to recognize the effects of trauma in adolescent students and collaborate with each other to assist the student in his or her healing.

“Fight or Flight” Responses in Adolescents

Adolescence is a critical period for brain development and trauma experienced during those years can be particularly harmful to an adolescent’s future development. When a child or adolescent experiences a traumaic event, such as witnessing violence, the brain initiates a stress response—a response originally developed for survival needs that triggers changes in behaviors. A student who has experienced trauma may display “fight or flight” behaviors, such as bullying other students or rushing out of class when confronted by a teacher, or detachment behaviors, such as isolating himself or herself from adults and peers or being disengaged during class.

As individuals become more physically able to protect themselves or run away, their predominant stress response changes to maximize their chances of surviving a threat. Consequently, adolescents exposed to trauma are more likely to respond with “fight or flight” behaviors than younger children. Furthermore, youth who have experienced trauma may distrust authority figures such as teachers and parents because they perceive the traumatic event as a failure of authority figures to keep them safe. However, including a trauma-exposed adolescent in a secure relationship with adults can buffer the effects of the traumatic event and allow the teen to cope and return to a sense of safety and well-being.

Building Secure Relationships

To develop these secure relationships, and also respond effectively to the student’s needs, parents and school personnel first must recognize the student behaviors that result from exposure to violence and trauma.

Once the adults in a teen’s life have determined that a student has experienced trauma, parents and students must collaborate with teachers to create healthy environments for teens to cope appropriately, both at home and school. This means that parents and teachers should provide opportunities for students to speak openly about their opinions and feelings regarding a traumatic event without fear of negative consequences.

Once parents and schools establish this mutual trust, parents, students, teachers, counselors, and administrators should be able to discuss the student’s academic goals, home and community events that may affect student behavior, and the social and/or emotional needs of the student. Teachers also should be able to discuss the student’s academic progress, social-emotional development, classroom behavior, and any school-based events, like bullying, that may have impacted the teen. When parents, students, and teachers communicate about the academic and social-emotional needs of students, school personnel are better able to provide appropriate support.

How can parents work with school personnel to support students who have experienced or witnessed trauma?

  • Check out these parent and family resources from The National Child Traumatic Stress Network and share them with other parents and teachers. Find out what resources your child’s school provides about communicating with adolescents about traumatic events.
  • Ensure long-term support for students. Depending on the degree of trauma a student has experienced, it may take considerable time before that student returns to his or her normal behavior. Regular parent-teacher communication about student academic and social behavior will give teachers and administrators the necessary insight to provide continuous support to students vulnerable for trauma exposure. Parents can meet with teachers in person, schedule phone conferences, or simply have regular check-ins with teachers by email. These discussions should go beyond talking about what the teen is doing and examine why he or she might be exhibiting certain behaviors.
  • Form a parent advisory group. These school-based groups allow parents to voice their concerns about how community violence emotionally impacts children and adolescents, participate in the development of interventions, and advocate for the school resources and staff training necessary to support students. Often, these groups are a part of a larger Parent Teacher Association. If the school does not already have such a group, parents should work with the school’s principal to create one.

Robyn Harper is a policy and advocacy associate at the Alliance for Excellent Education.

Science of Adolescent Learning, Science of Learning

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