Hardly a day goes by that we do not read or hear about a violent act or tragedy involving children in our community or across the country.
Some tragedies are unintentional and unpredictable, such as traffic accidents or natural disasters. Others are intentional and sometimes premeditated, such as fights, muggings, shootings, murders, and terrorist attacks. Many children and teens are also exposed to violence within their schools and neighborhoods, and even within their own homes.
Problems Associated with Exposure to Violent Acts
When children are exposed to a traumatic event, including a violent crime, their response may vary. Some children become fearful. They may prefer to stay at home, and they may have trouble sleeping and concentrating in school. Appetites often change, and children may complain of headaches, stomachaches, and other vague symptoms. Even minor changes in their daily routines can upset them terribly.
The Cycle of Violence
Some children exposed to violence learn to resolve their own conflicts in a violent manner. Others seem to become desensitized to violence and the pain and distress of others. Some retreat into a shell, avoiding people and the world around them. These children with long-term exposure are at an increased risk for:
Behavioral, psychological, and physical problems
Alcohol and substance use
When these children repeat the violence they have experienced, they perpetuate a cycle of violence that can continue throughout future generations.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Children & Teens
Children who are exposed to violence on a regular basis often experience many of the same symptoms and lasting effects as children who are victims of violence themselves, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These kids can feel emotional and physical "aftershocks" for months or even years. They can relive the event again and again in their minds, and be less able to function normally in their day-to-day lives. Some may become more aggressive, violent, and self-destructive.
In the Aftermath: How to Help Your Family
If your children have been exposed to violent acts, think about how they AND your entire family have been affected. Are your family members now interacting with one another and with the outside world differently? Have your routines and activities changed?
Encourage your children to discuss the violence. Allow them to express what they are feeling, including fear, anxiety, or anger. Listen as they talk about it, again and again if necessary. See Parenting After Trauma: Understanding Your Child's Needs for more information.
Finding Outside Support
Children who have been exposed to or have witnessed a violent occurrence will need a great deal of support and often will need counseling in order to handle their feelings. Your pediatrician can help you and your family find an experienced mental health professional who can help your children and your family with the aftermath of a violent experience.
In the weeks and months after a violent or traumatic event, do everything you can to make sure that your children feel secure, and that a sense of normality returns to their life.
Be very available if needed and ensure that they are adequately supervised and protected throughout the day and night.
Discuss any potentially dangerous situations that might exist and how to avoid them in the future.
Encourage them to express their fears. Reassure them they are safe by letting them know the steps that have been taken to ensure their protection.
A Message on Virtual Violence
The major setting for violence in America is the home. Television programs, video and computer games, Internet content, and movies frequently show graphic acts of violence. When children view this content, it can affect them just as much as if a "real life" experience.
By the time children reach middle school, they may have watched as many as 8,000 murders and 100,000 other acts of virtual violence through the media.
Children's exposure to violence is an issue that touches everyone—an American tragedy that scars children and threatens the safety of communities. All children require love, nurturing, and support to thrive and break the cycle of violence that affects them.
Additional Information from HealthyChildren.org: