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Children Exposed to Violence

Jimmy, age 3, announces at circle time that he saw someone getting stabbed on his street. Marsha, a pert 4-year-old, says that her Dad hit her Mommy and made her face bleed. Harold, age 5, hears gunshots outside his home and is afraid to go to sleep at night. Particularly in settings in which there are many children who live in chronically violent neighborhoods, stories of violence or danger may permeate the child care center.”
– Betsy McAllister-Groves & Barry Zuckerman (1997, p. 191)

Violence is typically the most toxic and damaging element that children are exposed to. Coming into contact with unbridled human rage is a scary experience. It tends to leave a child feeling helpless, terrified, and insecure about the world at large. It has the potential to impact just about every aspect of their lives.

Children Who Witness Violence

One fact that often catches adults by surprise is this: Children end up just as traumatized whether they are the direct victims of violence or merely witnesses to it. In other words, when a mother or father engages in domestic abuse against a partner, or when a child witnesses a violent attack against someone they know and care about, it is generally just as damaging to kids as if they had been attacked directly.

Those children who witness violence show similar stress reactions to those who are personally victimized. (Perry, 1997) They exhibit symptoms of PTSD at rates just as high or even higher than kids who have been personally victimized. (Jenkins & Bell, 1994; Scheeringa & Zeanah, 1995) The feelings of fear and terror, the sense of helplessness, the high levels of stress hormones rushing through the body, the lost sense of safety and security; all these things occur regardless of whether a child is the target of violence or merely a passive observer. (Hygge & Ohman, 1978)

Sources of childhood violence

There are several all-too-common types of violence that children are exposed to:

  1. Abusive discipline: Physical discipline that involves an angry, out-of control caregiver can be virtually indistinguishable from physical abuse.

  1. Witnessing domestic abuse and violence in the home: Children are often witnesses to domestic violence, and this type of aggression perpetrated by one caretaker against the other is frequently the most distressing type of violence children can be exposed to.

  2. Community violence: Children who live in poor, urban communities are often surrounded by community violence. Studies typically show that anywhere from 30% to 70% of young kids in such environments have witnessed stabbings or shootings in their neighborhood. (Jenkins & Bell, 1997)

  3. Aggression or violence at school: Bullying and peer on peer aggression at school often takes the form of physical violence, and these assaults can sometimes become quite severe.

  4. High-exposure events: Knowledge or awareness of high-impact violent events, such as the Columbine or Sandy Hook school shootings, has the potential to affect children who aren’t physically tied to the event.

  5. Media violence: Finally, the brains of American children are bathed in violence and aggression throughout popular media. Although this “fake” violence has a minimal impact on non-exposed children, its messages and frequently graphic imagery can become a significant factor in the lives of children affected by real-world events.

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