Why children’s exposure to violence matters
In 2014, more than two-thirds of children (ages 17 and younger) were exposed to violence within the past year, either directly (as victims) or indirectly (as witnesses).
Children are more likely to be exposed to violence and crime than adults. 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—in addition to academic and cognitive problems, delinquency, and involvement in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems—are also associated with experiences of violence.,, Even community violence that children do not directly witness has been shown to affect negatively children’s attentional abilities and cognitive performance.
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 generally 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.
Children exposed to violence are more likely than those who do not experience violence to become victims or perpetrators of further violence., 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. However, even multiple types of direct victimization within a single year are not uncommon.
Analysis and figures based on most recently available data. Data last updated in May 2016