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Children's Exposure to Violence

Community Violence, Domestic ViolenceGENERAL EFFECTS

Anna Marie Medina
Gayla Margolin
Elana B. Gordis

Joy D. Osofsky
Howard J. Osofsky

Debbie Miller


Children's experience with violence has been linked to a variety of negative outcomes, one of particular importance being children's school adaptation and academic success. Since the early 1980s researchers and professionals working with children have become increasingly aware of the extent to which many children experience or observe violence within the confines of their own homes or within their own neighborhoods. Data from 1999 reports by states to the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data Systems indicate that approximately 826,000 children (nearly 12 out of every 1,000 children) were confirmed by child protective services as victims of maltreatment. With respect to exposure to interparental violence, Murray A. Straus estimated, in a report published in 1992, that more than 10 million children in the U.S. witness physical aggression between their parents each year, with prevalence rates throughout childhood being at least triple the rates of exposure within a given year.

Community violence also has an impact on many children. Estimates of community violence exposure are based on data gathered through interview or survey methods, and generally reflect the number of children who were personally victimized as well as those who witness community violence involving their family members, schoolmates, neighbors, and peers as victims. Whereas attempts are made to keep child abuse and interparental aggression private and secret, community violence is discussed widely, often resulting in rapidly spreading ripple effects. Thus, even children who do not directly observe community violence often have knowledge of violent events within their community or hear repeated accounts of a specific incident, and may form their own mental imagery of the violence. Studies suggest that in inner city neighborhoods, almost all children have been exposed to community violence, and at least one-third of pre-teenage and teenage children have been directly victimized. Exposure to violence (i.e. children's experience as either targets or witnesses to violence) affects children's views of the world and themselves, their ideas about the meaning and purpose of life, their expectations for future happiness, and their moral development. Moreover, exposure to violence often interferes with developmental tasks children need to accomplish in order to become competent members of society.

Two key developmental tasks frequently compromised by exposure to violence are children's adaptation to school and academic achievement. Children exposed to either familial or community violence (or both) often demonstrate lower school achievement and poorer adaptation to the academic environment. Exposure to violence affects these developmental tasks both directly and indirectly. Violence exposure can lead to disturbances in cognitive functioning, emotional difficulties such as depression and anxiety, and behavior and peer problems. Before examining how each of these effects can interfere with children's adaptation to school and academic competence, it is important to consider three issues related to children's violence exposure.

First, violence exposure rarely occurs only once or only in one form. That is, most children who are exposed to violence are rarely exposed to only one incident or one type of violence. Researchers have determined that there are high rates of cooccurrence between exposure to community violence and intrafamilial violence, and within the family, high rates of co-occurrence have been detected between interparental violence and parent-to-child violence. Moreover, it also has become clear that these different forms of violence are frequently recurring events.

A second central issue is that violence exposure often goes hand in hand with numerous other adverse life experiences. Children living with violence typically experience other stressors such as poverty, neglect, poor nutrition, overcrowding, substance abuse, lack of adequate medical care, parents' unemployment, and parents' psychopathology. These factors can exacerbate and extend the negative effects of violence exposure in children. For example, children whose parents suffer from psychopathology or struggle with substance abuse problems may not have had the opportunity or guidance to develop pro-social coping skills with which to deal with violence exposure in their community. Although children exposed to violence may have a greater need for nurturance and protection than children without such stressors, they may actually have less access to social support from their caretakers. Therefore, efforts to grasp the effects of violence exposure on children also must evaluate the context in which the child is embedded.

A third issue is that the effects of violence exposure are developmentally contingent. Children face specific challenges at different points in development. Thus, the impact of violence exposure will vary according to the child's developmental level. Children's abilities to appraise and understand violence, to respond to and cope with danger, and to garner environmental resources that offer protection and support change become refined over the course of development. Moreover, theorists assert that as children mature, the skills required to master current life challenges rest on competencies acquired earlier in development. Accordingly, exposure to violence early rather than later in development may be more detrimental, particularly if the violence exposure compromises the foundations required to develop future competencies. In a related vein, however, if early violence exposure is terminated, the plasticity in children's developmental processes may promote recovery for any lost or delayed functioning. The implications of length and timing of violence exposure are complicated and require future empirical investigation.

The review that follows examines the cognitive, emotional, behavioral and social effects of violence exposure, and highlights the ways in which these effects can disrupt children's adaptation to school and academic competence. Although the effects of violence exposure are presented here as distinct, in reality the cognitive, emotional, behavioral and social effects of violence are interrelated and contribute to one another. For example, if children who are exposed to violence are less flexible and resourceful in their reasoning, these cognitive processes may be associated with problems with peers and school work, which may then lead to depression and anxiety.

Cognitive Effects

Exposure to violence, particularly parent-to-child violence, has been associated with problems in children's cognitive processes and poor academic functioning. Researchers have linked exposure to chronic abuse and violence with lower IQ scores, poorer language skills, decrements in visual-motor integration skills and problems with attention and memory. Cognitive problems associated with exposure to violence and abuse comprise one of the most direct threats to the developmental task of school adaptation and academic achievement. Deficits in attention regulation, language skills, and memory undermine the child's ability to accomplish the central requirements of academic achievement and school adaptation, namely to encode, organize, recall, and express understanding of new information. Accordingly, physically abused school-age children have been found to score lower than non-abused comparison children on tests of verbal ability and comprehension, reading and math skills, and overall achievement on standardized tests. Similarly, children exposed to community violence tend to show lower school achievement.

The cognitive effects of violence exposure affect more than children's academic performance. Children who have difficulty with attention and memory may not be sensitive to important social cues and expectations, and thus find themselves struggling with school rules, peer relationships, and classroom instructions. Thus, the cognitive effects of violence exposure may disrupt children's successful functioning in the school environment in addition to hindering academic competence.

Emotional Effects

Exposure to violence almost always carries emotional consequences for children. Children's exposure to intrafamilial violence has been linked to depression and more negative self-concept. Studies have shown that both witnessing and/or being a victim of community violence may put children at risk for increased anxiety and depressive symptoms. Violence exposure can be interpreted by the child to mean not only that the world is unsafe but also that the child is unworthy of being kept safe. Whether related to violence in the home or in the community, these attitudes can undermine children's school adjustment and academic achievement by contributing to negative self-perceptions and problems with depression and anxiety.

Another emotional consequence for children exposed to violence is posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Researchers have determined that both chronic and acute exposure to violence is linked to heightened levels of PTSD symptoms, including diminished concentration, sleep disturbance, sudden startling, and intrusive thoughts. These symptoms, as well as the symptoms of anxiety and depression, interfere with children's academic achievement by making it more difficult to attend to school lessons, and by lowering the motivation and disrupting the concentration necessary to complete academic tasks. Similarly, children's adaptation to the school environment may be undermined by the emotional consequences of violence exposure. Violence-exposed children have been rated by teachers and parents as less "ready to learn," less competent in school, and more likely to repeat grades.

In addition, children's efforts to manage the emotional consequences of violence exposure may interfere with school adaptation and academic achievement. Research has shown that children use both behavioral distraction and attentional disengagement to cope with uncontrollable stress and reduce anxiety. Children's efforts to cope with the symptoms of depression, anxiety, and PTSD may have a deleterious effect on their social awareness, social engagement, ability to problem solve, and their attentional resources. Whereas some children will cope with the emotional toll of violence exposure by isolating themselves and withdrawing from the environment, other children will use behavioral distraction to cope with overwhelming negative emotions. Both coping strategies can create problems in the classroom and on the playground.

Behavioral and Social Effects

Childhood exposure to violence is associated with a variety of aggressive and otherwise maladaptive behaviors that can disrupt children's school adaptation and academic competence. Such behavior problems not only interfere with classroom learning, they also hamper children's efforts to make friends, another essential task of childhood and an important dimension of school adaptation. Exposure to intrafamilial violence has been linked with increased aggression, fighting, "meanness," and generally disruptive behavior. Children exposed to intrafamilial violence are reported to have more disciplinary problems at school than their non-exposed peers, and are more likely to be suspended. Likewise, exposure to community violence has been associated with increases in antisocial behavior and aggression, as reported by teachers and parents.

Behavior problems that emerge following exposure to violence can be thought of as stemming from a lack of appropriate role models, difficulties with emotion regulation skills, and aberrant information processing. Children exposed to adult violence, particularly intrafamilial adult violence, may learn from these adults that aggressive behavior is a viable problem-solving option, and that physical aggression in close relationships is normal. Clearly, such lessons could create problems for children on the playground and later in life.

Researchers have observed that exposure to violence is related to difficulties regulating anger, frustration, and other negative feelings, as well as deficits in understanding and experiencing empathy for the feelings of others. These difficulties can lead to significant behavioral and social problems for children. As noted above, one way in which children deal with overwhelming negative feelings is through behavioral distraction. Performance in academic settings will suffer if violence-exposed children attempt to cope with anger towards other children or frustration with academic material by behaving disruptively. Moreover, children with deficits in emotion regulation, empathy, and understanding emotions tend to be rated as less popular and more rejected by their peers.

Another source of behavior and social problems for violence-exposed children involves aberrant processing of social information. Researchers have observed relations between exposure to violence, problems in the way children think about social relationships, and children's social adjustment in the school peer group. Violence-exposed children have been found to be less interpersonally sensitive and attentive to social cues, less competent at social perspective taking, less able to identify others' emotional expressions and to understand complex social roles, and more likely to ascribe hostile intentions to the neutral behavior of others. The suboptimal processing of social information may contribute to the problem behaviors seen in children exposed to violence.

Long-Term Consequences of Violence Exposure

The impact of violence exposure can go beyond the period of exposure and the immediate aftermath, affecting some individuals into adulthood. Although little is known concerning the effects of exposure to community violence, researchers have examined the adult lives of individuals exposed in childhood to intrafamilial aggression. Adults exposed to such violence as children have been found to have completed significantly fewer years of school and reported more episodes of truancy during their time in school compared to non-exposed peers. In addition, and perhaps related to their lack of schooling, adults exposed to intrafamilial violence in childhood also are at greater risk for arrest for a violent crime, and for earlier and more chronic involvement in criminal behavior.

It is important to recognize, however, that the damaging effects of violence exposure are not inevitable. Researchers have identified a host of protective factors that can buffer the detrimental effects of adverse life events, such as violence exposure. Among these factors are the presence of supportive adults in children's lives, scholastic competence, and realistic educational and vocational plans.


The effects of violence exposure, problematic in their own right, also have a detrimental impact on two key developmental challenges, namely, children's school adaptation and academic achievement. Both the effects of violence exposure and consequent poor mastery of important developmental challenges set violence-exposed children on a trajectory towards maladaptive outcomes. Much remains to be learned about how violence exposure brings about these effects and how the cognitive, emotional, behavioral and social systems of a child are interconnected. It is important for social scientists and professionals working with children to continue to search for ways to reduce violence exposure and to intervene effectively to keep violence-exposed children on a pro-social track.

Although different types of violence exposure can hold unique effects for children, there are common symptom patterns among children exposed to violence. Difficulties with attention and other cognitive processes, troubling emotional aftereffects, and problems with behavioral and social adaptations are frequent outcomes for children exposed to diverse types of violence. Because children's reactions to violence exposure may be present as common emotional or behavioral symptoms, violence exposure may be overlooked as the underlying problem. From treatment and policy perspectives, it is critical that the assessment of children routinely evaluates for both family and community violence.


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