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Working with teens who have experienced violence

Unfortunately, many teens across the country experience violent situations on a semi-regular basis. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that 1 in 4 high school students reported being in at least one physical fight, while 1 in 5 said they had been bullied during the previous year.

Youth who experience violence regularly are at a higher risk for mental heath and other problems. Studies indicate that youth who experience violence at home, in their community, or at school are more likely to run away, drop out of school, become homeless, abuse drugs or alcohol, or end up in the juvenile justice system. As they grow older, they may also go on to be violent toward family members, friends, or romantic partners. As a social worker, you will likely find yourself assisting a teen who is going through a violent situation or living in a violent environment. 

What are the warning signs?
Reactions to bullying or domestic violence vary depending on the teen. Despite this, there are several warning signs to look for when visiting at-risk youth. These signs may change based on the severity of the violence or their ability to process their situations. Sometimes these signs don't even show up until months or years after violence has occurred. Some of the most common reactions include:

  • Signs of depression or thoughts of suicide
  • Inability to concentrate on schoolwork or hobbies
  • Constant anxiety about the safety of their loved ones
  • Physical complaints, such as stomach aches or headaches
  • Rebellion at school or home
  • Random or frequent outbursts of anger
  • Abrupt changes in friends, dating relationships, or general behavior
  • Risky behavior, such as thrill-seeking activities
  • Adamant refusal to follow rules
  • Submissive attitude
  • Revenge-seeking mindset

What steps can you take to prevent or remove youth from violent situations? 
There is not one sole cause for youth violence. Usually, it results from many culminating factors. Most research suggests that teen violence is caused or influenced by economic conditions, relationships, communities, societal expectations and more. To connect with the teens you are working with, you must reach them on an individual level.

Many of the teens you will be working with have experienced a lifetime of exposure to violence. It may be so pervasive in their lives that they may be unable to process life outside of these situations or relationships. To support these teens, you must first acknowledge this truth and take care to understand how the their specific environment may be affecting their outlook or lifestyle. 

When working with at-risk youth, you should schedule routine mental and physical health screenings to determine the effects of the violence surrounding or directed at them. A mental health assessment may be able to help them process or recognize its presence in their life. Yet it is important to remember that many adolescents may feel embarrassed, ashamed or defiant about their problems and unwilling to open up at first.

To help them feel more at ease, you should not force them to speak if they don't want to. Give them time to become comfortable with you. Once they do talk, help them create a personalized safety plan and give them straightforward answers for what is troubling them. Don't simply comfort them with sentiments that downplay what they are going through. Instead, give them concrete steps they can take to remove themselves from these situations or learn how to cope.

You should refer them to professional help if you discover that that they are involved in an abusive dating relationship, misusing drugs or alcohol, or breaking the law. Additionally, if they have expressed a desire to commit suicide or harm themselves, you should immediately contact a mental health professional. Being proactive and patient are two key considerations to keep in mind when approaching teen violence.

To learn more, take one of ProSolutions Training's online social service training courses today, such as "Working with Youth Experiencing Violence."