National Crime Victims' Rights Week

Listening To A Child’s Needs – Maybe They Know More Than We Do

Written by Deanee' Johnson, Ph.D., Child Exploitation Visiting Fellow, Office for Victims of Crime

Suspend the notion for one moment that as adults we know what is best for children who have experienced adversities. Imagine that children have the ability to identify their own needs specific to their unique circumstances. Although these needs may or may not be congruent with what we as professionals have historically written in treatment plans or put in court orders, every child victim should have their needs heard and validated. This suspension of belief that “we know better” combined with creative service plans have been key to initiating the healing process for many child victims.

Understanding each child's experience as individual and unique is the first step to helping professionals assist in the healing process. Practitioners often get complacent with responding to children in need of assistance for various reasons. Perhaps this is because they have been in the field for several years and many cases begin to sound similar, or maybe they are overwhelmed with the sheer number of children that come in contact with systems of care. Of course there are basic needs that must be addressed such as food, shelter, clothing, education, mental health, medical, etc. Children may not know about or understand these basic needs and rely on the adults around them to ensure that these needs are met. However, if we can look at the context of the child’s situation, listen to the child’s personal experience, validate the child’s response, and spend more time building rapport, we can then start to identify other needs creatively which may not be identified as a typical victim service. For example, if a child who has experienced maltreatment mentions to a service provider that she finds comfort and security while buried in books, but does not have access to any, perhaps assisting that child with obtaining a library card would be helpful. This act may be insignificant to us, yet can make a world of difference to the child. 

Our ultimate goal is to build resiliency within these children. By opening our ears and hearts, we can learn from each individual child what makes him or her feel safe, capable, and loved. When professionals explore the safety of children, we need to expand our preconceived ideas of safety beyond the physical well-being of children and should also include emotional and psychological safety. Encouraging child victims to embrace their passions or even helping them identify what that means to them may allow them to escape their trauma and harness positive energy toward something they can be proud of. These little steps of encouragement have the potential for changing a child victims’ belief that they are incapable of positive life experiences. Lastly, children rely on adults to show them what healthy love and acceptance is. We are in a unique position where we can do this with every action and every decision that we make. It is true that resiliency is determined based on support and relationships. You never know if, in that child’s mind, you are the only person guiding him or her towards the road of resiliency. Hearing their voice, responding to their needs, and supporting their unique circumstances are all indicative of a child-centered approach to victim services.