Spurred on by family instability, violent crime now touches millions of young lives. The control of crime in the streets, in the schools, and in the home ought to be the preeminent 'children's issue.'
--Karl Zinsmeister, "Growing up Scared," Atlantic Monthly, June 1990
Karl Zinsmeister's words are 20 years old, but the message still resonates. Although violent crime rates had been dropping steadily since 1993, millions of kids are still seeing human nature at its worst.
Childhood is supposed to be a time of innocence, but in disadvantaged or inner-city neighborhoods, far too many children see violence instead. When they should be thinking about books and friends and long division, they fixate on fear and death.
They have good reason. One out of three first- and second-graders in Washington, D.C. claimed to have seen a dead body, according to a survey in the journal Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. Surveys in cities such as Chicago, Detroit, and Los Angeles have found that one-fourth to one-half of teens and pre-teens in high-violence neighborhoods witnessed stabbings, shootings, or sexual assaults. In a sample of elementary school children from both low- and high-violence neighborhoods in Washington, D.C,, more than 75 percent have witnessed physical assaults.
The home is no haven for many children either. A comprehensive national survey conducted in 2009 found that nearly 1 in 10 children had witnessed one family member assault another.
Some children and teens have poignant responses to this shocking level of exposure to violence. Georgetown nurse and researcher Judy Rollins once encountered a boy in a dangerous neighborhood who put his faith in a bottle of deodorant he always kept by his bed because the label assured him it was "100 percent safe."
Violent scenes can be unsettling to anyone. For young children, the sight of someone getting stabbed, shot, or punched is especially terrifying, bewildering, and stressful. It's the kind of stress that can simmer for years after the act. And as a series of recent studies makes abundantly clear, it's the kind of stress that can threaten a child's health, both physically and emotionally. Even for kids who never feel a fist or catch a stray bullet, violence can leave permanent scars.
The young and the defenseless
As reported in the journal Pediatric Nursing, young children tend to believe that the world revolves around them. To their thinking, a stabbing or shooting that they see could somehow be their fault. They may be especially eager to take the blame if they see their dad take a swing at their mom. Children who witness marital violence can experience a variety of emotional and psychological problems, including low self-esteem and post-traumatic stress syndrome.
Whether it happens at home or on the street, being around violence can change a child's outlook on life. As reported in Pediatric Nursing, kids who witness violence -- whether it's abusive screaming from a family member, physical assaults, or seeing someone get badly hurt or killed -- often feel anxious, depressed, and lonely. Teenagers may become convinced that they aren't likely to reach adulthood, a belief that can open the door to risky behaviors or suicide attempts. According to the National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a department of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, even infants and toddlers can be severely traumatized by scenes of violence such as gang wars, drive-by shootings, and sexual, physical, or emotional abuse.
At any age, fear leads to stress. After seeing a violent act, a child may decide that the world is dangerous and unpredictable. As a result, his body and mind may be on high alert when he should be relaxed. He could be watching cartoons or lying in his bed, and his body will still pump out stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, chemicals that prime the body to face danger.
A little adrenaline feels good once in a while, but a steady flow can throw a child's system off balance. A study of 48 young children published in the Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology found that kids who have seen violence between parents tend to have higher-than-average heart rates, a sign that their adrenaline is in overdrive.
The study in Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics found that exposure to violence increases the risk of sleep problems in 6- and 7-year-olds. It also found that kids who were repeatedly exposed to violent acts were especially prone to headaches, which are also associated to stress.
Yet another study, published in the Journal of Pediatrics, found that witnessing various types of community violence -- ranging from beatings and chasings to drug deals, arrests, rapes, and shootings -- increased the risk of a wide range of health problems in low-income children, including asthma, colds, stomach problems, and attention deficit disorder. The results led researchers to a startling conclusion: Violence and the resulting stress may actually be the root cause of many of the health problems that plague poor neighborhoods.
Staying healthy in a violent world
Parents may not be able to completely isolate their children from a violent world, but they can help children adapt, adjust, and stay healthy. One simple step is to limit exposure to violent television and video games. Watching a murder on TV isn't nearly as traumatic as seeing one in the street, but seeing thousands of virtual killings over time may still warp a child's view of the world. According to a report by the American Psychological Association, such repeated "entertainment" can increase the chance that kids will grow up to be aggressive and even violent adults.
The National Institute of Mental Health offers several other tips for helping children cope with scenes of violence:
- Explain what happened as clearly as you can. This will help him understand he's not to blame.
- Encourage your child to express feelings, but don't force the conversation.
- Let him know it's okay to cry and to feel sad or upset.
- Don't make fun of him or reprimand him if he regresses and acts younger than he really is.
- Assure your fearful child that you'll love him and take care of him.
- If there are sleep disturbances, let him sleep with the lights on or in your room until things get back to normal. When possible, give him a chance to feel in control. For example, let him pick out his own clothes or meals.
Of course, the best thing anyone can do for a child is limit the violence around him, especially in the home. Children need a refuge from the rest of the world, a place where they can feel safe. The alternative is unacceptable: Fear will lead to stress, and stress will lead to emotional upheaval and physical illness. Eventually, children exposed to violence may become violent themselves, potentially creating a new generation of young witnesses. It's a cycle that has to be stopped -- for the sake of this generation and the next.
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Skybo T. Witnessing violence: Biopsychosocial impact on children. Pediatric Nursing. July/August 2005. 31(4): 263-270.
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. National Center for PTSD. Community violence. July 2005.
Saltzman et al. The psychobiology of children exposed to marital violence. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology. 2005. 34(1): 129-139.
Bailey BN et al. Somatic complaints in children and community violence exposure. Developmental and Behavior Pediatrics. October 2005. 26(5): 341-347.
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Zinsmeister, Karl. Growing up Scared. Atlantic Monthly. June 1990.
U.S. Department of Justice. Violent crime rates declined since 1994, reaching the lowest level ever recorded in 2004.
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