Children’s Exposure to Violence

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In 2011, nearly 60 percent of children (ages 17 and younger) were exposed to violence within the past year, either directly (as victims) or indirectly (as witnesses).[1]

Importance

Children are more likely to be exposed to violence and crime than adults are.[2] An experience of violence can lead to lasting physical, mental, and emotional harm, whether the child is a direct victim or a witness.  Children who are exposed to violence are more likely to suffer from attachment problems, regressive behavior, anxiety, and depression, and to have aggression and conduct problems.  Other health-related problems, as well as academic and cognitive problems, delinquency, and involvement in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems, are also associated with experiences of violence.[3],[4],[5] Even community violence that children do not directly witness has been shown to affect negatively children's attentional abilities[6] and cognitive performance. [7]

One mechanism through which early, chronic exposure to violence affects children is by disrupting the developing brain. Specific brain structures (amygdala, hippocampus, prefrontal cortex) are adversely affected by stress. Executive functions (such as planning, memory, focusing attention, impulse control, and using new information to make decisions) can become impaired. Moreover, children who have had chronic exposure to real or perceived threats may become conditioned to react with fear and anxiety to a broad range of circumstances. Their diminished capacity to differentiate between genuine threats and objectively safe or neutral situations can impair their ability to learn and interact with others, and may lead to serious anxiety disorders. Unfortunately, while fear learning happens early in life, with emotional memories that are powerful and persistent, unlearning fears depends upon brain maturation that happens only later, and requires active work and evidence-based treatment.[8]

Children exposed to violence are more likely than those not experiencing violence to become victims or perpetrators of further violence.[9],[10] Victims of dating violence are considerably more likely to engage in sexual activity and other risky behaviors (binge drinking, suicide attempts, physical fights) than are non-victims.[11] However, even multiple types of direct victimization within a single year are not uncommon.[12]

Trends

Data on this issue come primarily from the 2008 and 2011 National Surveys of Children’s Exposure to Violence (NatSCEV), the first nationally representative survey on these topics.  Youth ages ten and older were interviewed directly; for children younger than 10, interviews were conducted with their adult caregivers.  The survey’s sponsors believe the data likely understate children’s actual exposure to violence, because they rely on family members to report incidents, some of which may be undisclosed, minimized, or not recalled.[13]

118_fig1In 2011, nearly one-half (41 percent) of children were physically assaulted within the previous year, and more than half (55 percent) had been assaulted during their lifetime.  Fourteen percent suffered some form of maltreatment in the past year (26 percent during their lifetime); six percent reported being sexually victimized in the past year (10 percent over their lifetime).  (Figure 1)

In 2011, 22 percent of children in the NatSCEV study had witnessed violence in their homes, schools, and communities in the past year, and 39 percent had witnessed violence against another person during their lifetimes.  One in twelve (eight percent) saw one family member assault another in the past year, while one in five (21 percent) had witnessed this scenario over their lifetime.  (Figure 1)

There were no significant changes in exposure to violence between the 2008 and 2011 surveys.

Forty-eight percent of children reported more than one form of victimization in the past year, 15 percent reported six or more , and five percent reported 10 or more forms of victimizations in the past year.[14]

In 2008, children who were exposed to one type of violence, both in the past year and over their lifetimes, had a far greater risk of experiencing other types of violence.  Of the children who reported being exposed to violence during their lifetimes, 87 percent also reported being exposed to violence in the past year.[15]

Differences by Age

118_fig2Except for physical assault, all types of exposure to violence were more common among older children and adolescents.  For example, past-year rates for maltreatment were greater for older children: ten percent of children ages two to five reported maltreatment in the past year, compared with 17 percent of children ages 10 to 13 and 21 percent of children ages 14 to 17.    Physical assault was most common among children ages six to nine, with 49 percent of parents reporting it occurred in the past year, compared with 47 percent among children ages 10 to 13, 40 percent among those ages 14 to 17, 44 percent among those two to five, and 13 percent among children under two.  (Figure 2)

In general, the type of violence children are exposed to increases in severity with age.  For children ages six to nine, the most common exposure to violence was assault without a weapon or without injury and assaults by a sibling.  Exposure to these kinds of violence was less frequent in older age groups.  More serious types of victimizations, including assault with a weapon, sexual harassment, and kidnapping, were more common among 10- to13-year-olds.  This group was also the most likely to witness violence in the home, including domestic violence involving their parents, and assaults by other family members.  Fourteen- to 17-year-olds were most likely to experience the most serious forms of violence.  Among these youth the most common types of exposure were assaults with injury, gang violence, sexual assaults, physical and emotional abuse, and witnessing violence in the community.   Adolescents, ages 14 to17, were far more likely than younger children to be sexually victimized (including flashing or exposure by a peer, sexual harassment, and sexual assault): 16 percent in the previous year.[16]

Rates for indirect exposure to violence (which could include seeing evidence of family assault, hearing about family assault, or the murder of a person who is important to the child) were twice as likely for older adolescents (ages 14 to 17) than for children ages two to five. The likelihood that a child had directly witnessed violence in the past year also increased with age, with older adolescents three times more likely than children ages two through five to have witnessed violence. (Figure 2)

Differences by Gender

118_fig3Males are more likely than females to be victims of assault. Fifty-nine percent of males were assaulted in their lifetimes, compared with 50 percent of females. Males are also more likely than females to witness violence over their lifetimes: 41 and 37 percent, respectively.   (Figure 3) Males witnessed more assault, murder, and shootings in the community, both in the past-year and during their lifetime.[17]

Females were more likely than males to be sexually victimized during their lifetime (11 and eight percent, respectively).  (Figure 3)The highest rates occurred in females ages 14-17: eleven percent in the past year, and 17 percent during their lifetimes.[18]

Males and females were equally likely to experience maltreatment or be indirectly exposed to violence. (Figure 3)  Similar patterns of child maltreatment were reported by both sexes, though boys were more likely to experience physical abuse, and girls were more likely to experience caregiver sexual abuse.[19] There were no significant differences by gender in witnessing family violence. (Appendix 1 and appendix 2)

State and Local Estimates

State-by-state comparisons on risky youth behavior, including some violence indicators, are available from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey.

State-by-state and county data on juvenile arrests for violent crime are available from the U. S. Department of Justice.

International Estimates

The Health Behavior in School-aged Children survey was conducted in thirty-five industrialized countries, including the U.S., in 2009-10. Results related to bullying and fighting among adolescents are available from this recent report.

National Goals

Through the national Healthy People 2020 initiative, the federal government has set a goal to reduce children's exposure to violence, from 60.6 percent in 2008 to 54.5 percent in 2020.There are also several goals related to this indicator, including reductions in physical assaults, bullying, child maltreatment, and sexual violence.

More information is available here.

What Works to Make Progress on This Indicator

Home visiting for first-time mothers, and comprehensive early education and family support have been shown to be effective in reducing the incidence of child abuse and neglect. See What Works . . . under the DataBank indicator, Child Maltreatment.

A number of universal school-based programs have been shown to be effective in preventing or reducing violence among school-aged youth. See the report from the Task Force on Community Preventative Services.

Recommended public health approaches to the treatment of children exposed to violence include specific training for professionals working with families experiencing trauma; developmentally appropriate interventions for children in programs addressing domestic violence; and programs that address the emotional needs of children living under circumstances where they are likely to experience violence (e.g., poverty, domestic violence, substance abuse, neighborhood violence). See the report of the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy has demonstrated effectiveness in reducing anxiety and fear. See the report of the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child.

Related Indicators

Definition

The National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence measured the following categories of violence: assaults (including from peers and when there is no weapon or injury), sexual victimization, child maltreatment by an adult, and witnessed and indirect victimization.  Witnessing violence includes any witness of family assault and assault in the community, exposure to shooting, and exposure to war.  Indirect victimization included when a child did not directly see or hear a family assault, but saw a bruise or injury or was told that it had occurred, or when someone close to the child was murdered.

Data Sources

Data for 2011: Finkelhor, D., Turner, H. A., Shattuck, A., & Hamby, S. L. (2013) Violence, crime, and abuse exposure in a national sample of children and youth: An update. JAMA Pediatrics, 167(7). 614-621

Indirect exposure data for 2008: personal communications with Anne Shattuck at the Crimes Against Children Research Center, University of New Hampshire, Durham

All other data for 2008: Finkelhor, D., Turner, H., Ormrod, S., & Hamby, S. L. (2009).  Violence, abuse, and crime exposure in a national sample of children and youth.  Pediatrics, 124 (5), 1411-1423.

Raw Data Source

National Survey of Children's Exposure to Violence

www.unh.edu/ccrc/projects/natscev.html

 

 

 

Appendix 1 - Percentage of Children Exposed to Violence in the Past Year, by Selected Victimization Categories: 2008 and 2011

2008 2011
Any Physical Assault 46.3 41.2
Gender
Males 50.2 45.2
Females 42.1 37.1
Age
0 to 1 year 17.9 12.7
2 to 5 years 46.0 43.9
6 to 9 years 55.6 49.2
10 to 13 years 49.8 46.5
14 to 17 years 46.9 39.5
Any Sexual Victimization 6.1 5.6
Gender
Males 4.8 3.8
Females 7.4 7.5
Age
0 to 1 year - 0.7
2 to 5 years 0.9 1.1
6 to 9 years 2.0 2.1
10 to 13 years 7.7 4.4
14 to 17 years 16.3 16.4
Any Maltreatment 10.2 13.8
Gender
Males 9.7 13.4
Females 10.6 14.2
Age
0 to 1 year 2.2 6.2
2 to 5 years 8.1 9.5
6 to 9 years 7.8 11.5
10 to 13 years 12.0 16.8
14 to 17 years 16.6 20.6
Any witness of violence1 25.3 22.4
Gender
Males 26.1 24.2
Females 24.6 20.5
Age
0 to 1 year 10.5 7.5
2 to 5 years 13.8 14.4
6 to 9 years 13.7 11.8
10 to 13 years 33.0 26.4
14 to 17 years 47.6 42.6
Any witness of family assault 9.8 8.2
Gender
Males 9.0 8.5
Females 10.7 7.8
Age
0 to 1 year 7.6 5.7
2 to 5 years 9.6 6.8
6 to 9 years 6.4 6.3
10 to 13 years 11 10.5
14 to 17 years 10.1 10.2
Witness assault in the community 19.2 16.9
Gender
Males 20.4 18.5
Females 17.9 15.2
Age
0 to 1 year - 1.8
2 to 5 years 5.8 9.3
6 to 9 years 8.5 6.4
10 to 13 years 27.0 21.1
14 to 17 years 42.2 36.4
Any indirect exposure to violence2 3.6 3.4
Gender
Males - 3.7
Females - 3.1
Age
0 to 1 year - 0.2
2 to 5 years - 3.0
6 to 9 years - 1.7
10 to 13 years - 3.9
14 to 17 years - 6.4
1 Witness of violence includes witness of family or community assault, exposure to war, and exposure to shooting.2 Indirect victimization included when a child did not directly see or hear a family assault, but saw a bruise or injury or was told that it had occurred, or when someone close to the child was murdered.Sources: Indirect exposure data for 2008: personal communications with Anne Shattuck at the Crimes Against Children Research Center, University of New Hampshire, Durham. All other data for 2008: Finkelhor, D., Turner, H., Ormrod, S., & Hamby, S. L. (2009). Violence, abuse, and crime exposure in a national sample of children and youth. Pediatrics, 124 (5), 1411-1423. Data for 2011: Finkelhor, D., Turner, H. A., Shattuck, A., & Hamby, S. L. (2013) Violence, crime, and abuse exposure in a national sample of children and youth: An update. JAMA Pediatrics, 167(7). 614-621.

 

Appendix 2 - Percentage of Children Exposed to Violence in Their Lifetimes, by Selected Victimization Categories: 2008 and 2011

2008 2011
Any Physical Assault 56.7 54.5
Gender
Males 60.3 58.5
Females 52.9 50.3
Age
2 to 5 years 48.7 -
6 to 9 years 63.8 -
10 to 13 years 61.1 -
14 to 17 years 71.1 69.7
Any Sexual Victimization 9.8 9.5
Gender
Males 7.5 7.8
Females 12.2 11.4
Age
2 to 5 years 1.5 -
6 to 9 years 5.0 -
10 to 13 years 9.4 -
14 to 17 years 27.8 27.4
Any Maltreatment 18.6 25.6
Gender
Males 18.6 25.2
Females 18.7 26.1
Age
2 to 5 years 12.1 -
6 to 9 years 16.8 -
10 to 13 years 21.0 -
14 to 17 years 32.1 41.2
Any witness of violence1 37.8 39.2
Gender
Males 40.1 40.9
Females 35.4 37.4
Age
2 to 5 years 21.2 -
6 to 9 years 24.7 -
10 to 13 years 47.5 -
14 to 17 years 70.2 71.5
Any witness of family assault 20.3 20.8
Gender
Males 19.6 20.9
Females 21.1 20.7
Age
2 to 5 years 15.8 -
6 to 9 years 15.6 -
10 to 13 years 21.2 -
14 to 17 years 34.6 34.5
Witness assault in the community 28.7 27.5
Gender
Males 31.0 30.0
Females 26.2 24.9
Age
2 to 5 years 9.0 -
6 to 9 years 13.8 -
10 to 13 years 39.0 -
14 to 17 years 64.2 58.9
Any indirect exposure to violence2 10.1 10.1
Gender
Males - 10.1
Females - 10.2
Age
14 to 17 years - 21.8
1 Witness of violence includes witness of family or community assault, exposure to war, and exposure to shooting.2 Indirect victimization included when a child did not directly see or hear a family assault, but saw a bruise or injury or was told that it had occurred, or when someone close to the child was murdered.Sources: Indirect exposure data for 2008: personal communications with Anne Shattuck at the Crimes Against Children Research Center, University of New Hampshire, Durham. All other data for 2008: Finkelhor, D., Turner, H., Ormrod, S., & Hamby, S. L. (2009). Violence, abuse, and crime exposure in a national sample of children and youth. Pediatrics, 124 (5), 1411-1423. Data for 2011: Finkelhor, D., Turner, H. A., Shattuck, A., & Hamby, S. L. (2013) Violence, crime, and abuse exposure in a national sample of children and youth: An update. JAMA Pediatrics, 167(7). 614-621.

Endnotes


[1]Finkelhor, D., Turner, H. A., Shattuck, A., & Hamby, S. L. (2013) Violence, crime, and abuse exposure in a national sample of children and youth: An update. JAMA Pediatric, 167(7). 614-621.  As used here, violence includes assaults, sexual victimization, child maltreatment by an adult, and witnessed and indirect victimization.

[2]Finkelhor, D., Turner, H. A., Ormrod, R., Hamby, S., & Kracke, K. (2009) Children’s exposure to violence: A comprehensive national survey. U.S. Department of Justice. Retrieved from http://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/227744.pdf.

[3]Margolin, G., & Elana B. G., (2004) Children's exposure to violence in the family and community. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 13, (4), 152-155. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdfplus/20182938.pdf.

[4]Finkelhor, et al. (2009). Op. cit.

[5]Duke, N. N., Pettingell, S. L., McMorris, B. J., and Borowsky, I. W. (2010). Adolescent violence perpetration: Associations with multiple types of adverse childhood experiences. Pediatrics, 124 (4), e778-e786.

[6]Sharkey, P. T., Tirado-Shaver, N., Papachristos, A. V., & Raver, C. C. (2012).  American Journal of Public Health, 102(12), 2287-2293.

[7]Sharkey, P. (2010).  The acute effect of local homicides on children’s cognitive performance.  PNAS, 107(26), 11733-11738.

[8]National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (2010). Persistent fear and anxiety can affect young children's learning and development: Working paper No. 9. Retrieved from www.developingchild.net.

[9]Margolin and Elana. Op. cit.

[10]Finkelhor, et al. (2009)  Op. cit.

[11]Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2006). Physical dating violence among high school students--United States, 2003. MMWR, 55 (19), 532-535. Retrieved from www.cdc.gov/mmwr/PDF/wk/mm5519.pdf

[12]Finkelhor, et al. (2009)  Op. cit.

[13]Finkelhor, et al. (2013).  Op. cit

[14]Ibid.

[15]Finkelhor, et al. (2009).  Op. cit

[16]Finkelhor, et al. (2013).  Op. cit

[17]Ibid.

[18]Ibid.

[19]Ibid.

 

Suggested Citation:

Child Trends. (2013). Children's exposure to violence. Available at: http://www.childtrends.org/?indicators=childrens-exposure-to-violence

 

Last updated: July 2013