Lessons From Youth Survivors of Domestic Violence

Lessons I Learned From Youth

“When people hear the phrase “youth witnesses of violence,” they envision kids who are helpless and bruised but those words do not capture the whole truth.”

April marks Child Abuse Prevention Month and is an issue that is very close to my heart. For over 20 years, I have had the honor of being involved with Caminar Latino, and one of the main things that has always kept me centered are the lessons that I have learned from our youth participants.

Typically, when people hear the phrase “youth witnesses of violence,” they envision kids who are scared, helpless, and in some cases are battered and bruised.  While these terms are an accurate depiction of some of the kids we have worked with, they do not capture the whole truth about the youth survivors of domestic violence I have met.

In honor of Child Abuse Prevention Month, I want to share the lessons I have learned from the youth:

  1. Never underestimate children and youth: One of the biggest misconceptions that many families have when they first come to Caminar Latino is how much their children really know.  Many parents will say that their children are not aware of the violence since they were sleeping or in another room when the violence occurred. Unfortunately, this belief is often wrong.  We have found that a lot of children are very aware of the violence occurring behind closed doors and can even anticipate when violent situations may occur. They may not admit this to their parents but they know more than they let on. I have found that while a child may not say much (especially if never asked) they probably know a lot more about what is going on than many people give them credit for.
  2. If you treat a child as an “at risk youth,” then you are setting them up to fail:  It is often the case that certain circumstances such as poverty or family violence can serve as barriers for a child to thrive. What I have discovered is that when people only focus on the deficiencies in a youth’s life, they can unknowingly send the message that the child has no choice but to drop out of school, abuse drugs, join a gang, or get involved in a violent relationship themselves.  Instead, when we focus on the strengths of the youth and their family, I have seen youth surpass all expectations and achieve their dreams. Simple acts such as praising a youth for excellence in their schoolwork, despite having to do their homework in chaotic environment can help him/her realize their potential. For instance, if you acknowledge that a child has to do their homework in a loud apartment that he/she shares with eight other family members yet expect them to do it well, they are more likely to meet your expectations.  While it is important to never disregard the reality of a child’s life, our impact can go so much farther when we decide to focus on a child’s strengths.
  3. If you want to know how to help youth, ask them:  One of the hardest things I have had to come to terms with is that some of the youth I have worked with have experienced more violence and trauma than many adults ever will in their entire lifetime.  Despite this fact, I have seen youth left out of the conversation when discussing what we can do to help them and their families too often.  Caminar Latino was built on the voices of the experts; the families experiencing violence!  Our work and reputation would not be what it is today if we had never taken into account what the families, including the youth, thought was the solution to stopping the cycle of violence. Watching youth share their experiences and recommendations to audiences of police officers, judges and social service providers have been some of the most powerful moments I have had in my career.  Only by inviting EVERYBODY impacted by family violence to the table can we really begin to have sustainable change!
  4. Give your true self: While I may be Latina, to the kids I have worked with, at first glance, I was a “white girl”.  This may offend some people, but it has never offended me. Why? Because while I am able to relate to the customs and values of my mother’s culture, I have never had to deal with the discrimination and stereotypes that many of the youth have experienced.  When I was growing up, I was never followed around a store or pulled over because of the color of my skin.  When my mom had to pay bills or had to come to my school, I never had to worry about people not being able to understand her.  Despite these differences, the youth still chose to accept me because I remained true to who I was.  While I may not have had to deal with discrimination, I was able to relate to issues of self-esteem, dating violence, and school challenges.  Kids do not necessarily need somebody that is exactly like them or who is a saint to help them overcome their challenges. What they need is somebody who is willing to give their time and be authentic with them.  If you are willing to do that, you would be amazed at the impact you can have on a child.

As we commemorate Child Abuse Prevention Month, I hope that you will take these lessons to heart so that you, too, may be able to experience the magic of working with youth!