All children are affected by exposure to violence, whether they are directly victimized or merely witnesses to it. How deeply they are affected depends on several factors, such as their age and proximity to the event, as discussed earlier. These effects commonly include the following:
PTSD in children exposed to violence
Though most children who experience violence WILL NOT develop PTSD, symptoms of PTSD still occur in a significant number of children, and this is equally likely whether they were victims or merely witnesses to a violent event. Recent reports have noted that even the youngest children exhibit symptoms very similar to PTSD in adults, including repeated experiencing of the traumatic event, avoidance, numbing or responsiveness, and increased arousal. (Pynoos, 1993; Zeanah, 1994; Scheeringa et al., 1995) As many as 30% of children who witness a traumatic event such as a shooting develop PTSD. (Grossman & Szabo, 2012) Data from the National Center for PTSD indicates that 35% of children who see violence in the area they live and 77% of children who witness a school shooting develop PTSD-like symptoms. (Siegel, 2012)
The psychological and emotional effects of exposure to violence
Numerous studies have shown that even young children are likely to exhibit emotional distress in response to violence, which can lead to somatic complaints, behavioral issues, excessive crying, more immature behavior, and regressions in toileting and language. (Drell et al., 1993; Pynoos, 1993; Osofsky, 1995) School-age children show greater maladjustment on both internalizing and externalizing scores, and overall functioning, attitudes, social competence, and school performance are often affected negatively. (Pynoos, 1993; Osofsky, 1995)
How violence affects a child’s brain
Witnessing violence creates fear and stress. Both of these psychological states release the stress hormone cortisol. In chronically violent environments, such as when a child is exposed to domestic violence or when they live in a violent neighborhood, children exist in a heightened state of alert, which means higher levels of consistent stress on the brain. When violent events are repeatedly experienced, it not only raises a child’s stress when such instances occur, but the threat of violence and the potential that it may erupt at any time raises a child’s stress levels throughout everyday life.
Chronic stress is known to impair intellectual development and cause physical damage to a child’s brain, destroying connections between neurons and even causing shrinkage of brain mass in certain regions. As a result, exposure to violence and trauma-related distress is associated with a substantial (7 to 10 point) decrease in IQ in young urban children. (Delaney-Black et al., 2002)
The academic effects of violence
In addition to the effects of stress on the brain, living in an unsafe environment makes it difficult for kids to concentrate on other things. This is a big reason why community violence exposure, such as living in an unsafe neighborhood or walking a dangerous path to school, contributes to lower academic performance. (Schwartz & Gorman, 2003)
Future risky behavior
Exposure to violence can lead to a child engaging in more high-risk behaviors themselves, especially during adolescence. (Bell, 1995) This is likely because it affects their world views and attitudes towards risk.
Exposure to violence can sometimes stunt a child’s development
Violence and conflict are the two most toxic things to kids, the former being an extreme version of the latter. When kids are around such things, it can have an impact on their development: “In the face of a violent episode, children’s feelings of insecurity and impotence undermine their normative strivings toward a sense of mastery and competence in the environment.” (Marans & Adelman, 1997, p. 219) In coping with this lost sense of security, children may grow reluctant to explore, weary of interactions with others, and ambivalent about experiencing new things. If such inhibition continues, over time this can stunt their development, which is why this can be especially problematic among children exposed to chronic violence.
Focusing on positive outcomes
“It is important for teachers to be reminded that not every child who is exposed to violence is affected in the same way, and that many children make the best out of this adversity.”
– Betsy McAlister-Groves & Barry Zuckerman (1997, p. 193)
While every child is affected by violence, it’s important to recognize that these effects needn’t be (and shouldn’t be) permanent. When adults intervene and help children understand violence in a constructive way, most should be able to escape long-term damage.