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Crime, Violence & Your Child

We live in a violent society. As the statistics point out, children are not immune to the growing dangers of modern life.

At some point during their childhood, many youngsters experience or witness a crime or other traumatic event. Some events are unintentional-perhaps a traffic accident, a household or schoolyard injury, or a natural disaster such as an earthquake or hurricane. Others are perpetrated crimes or other acts of violence; it seems as though children everywhere have seen not only fights on neighborhood playgrounds but also sometimes muggings, shootings, and even murders and terrorists' attacks. During middle childhood, too many youngsters are exposed to gang and drug-related violence, drive-by-shootings, and physical assaults, frequently resulting in serious injuries, occasionally even in death.

Then there are the dozens of crimes and violent acts on TV and in the movies that children may view each week. This ever-present violence in the media, along with the brutal acts that children may see and sometimes personally experience, can have many adverse consequences for them. Some youngsters learn to resolve their own conflicts in a violent manner. Others become seemingly desensitized to violence and the pain and distress of others. Some retreat into a shell, avoiding people and the world around them.

When your child is exposed to an actual traumatic event, including a violent crime, his response may vary. Some youngsters become fearful. The may avoid leaving home, and they may have difficulty concentrating in school. Even minor changes in their daily routines can upset them terribly. Their appetites often change, too, and they may complain of headaches, stomachaches, and other vague symptoms. They might have trouble sleeping. 

Post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition widely discussed as it applies to Vietnam war veterans, can occur in childhood as well. Like soldiers who have experienced the turmoil of battle, children exposed to violence often feel emotional and physical "aftershocks" for months or even years. Some of these symptoms-from fear to physical disorders-have already been described. Children often relive the event again and again in their minds, frequently making it harder for them to function normally in their day-to-day lives. And their own behavior may become more aggressive, violent, and even self-destructive.

If your own child finds himself in this situation, consider how it is affecting not only him but the entire family. Are your family members interacting with one another and with the outside world differently? Have your routines and activities changed?

Be sure to encourage your child to discus the violence.  Allow him to express what he is feeling, whether it be fear, anxiety, or anger. Talk about it, again and again if necessary. Remember, if he has bee exposed to or has witnessed a violent occurrence, he will need a great deal of support and often will need counseling in order to handle his feelings. There are many experienced mental-health professionals who can assist in treating your child for the stress he feels in the aftermath of a violent experience.

In the weeks and months after the violent or traumatic episode, do everything you can to make sure that your child feels secure, and that a sense of normalcy returns to his life. Make certain that he is adequately supervised and protected throughout the day and night. Discuss with him the potentially dangerous situations that may exist and how to avoid them in the future. Encourage him to express his fears, and reassure him that he will be all right.  Explain to him the steps that have been taken to ensure that he is protected and safe. Also, get involved in your community to address the issue of violence. By joining with other parents, as well as with schools, community organizations, businesses, and law enforcement agencies, you can help provide your child with a more secure environment and reduce the risk of violence in the lives of all children, including your own.

Finally, one other type of violence deserves mention here-namely, the fear of war. Thanks to vivid depictions of war on television, many children in the middle years are not only anxious about war-related death and injury to themselves and their families but also are afraid of separation and abandonment. If a parent or older sibling goes off to war. These youngsters might be afraid to go to school. Or they may have nightmares and disrupted sleep.

In cases like this, reassure your child that you and your family are safe, and that a war thousands of miles away is not going to affect your family and your city directly. It is much harder, or course, to convince your youngster that the people he sees on TV in the war zone are going to be all right. Talk with him about war, about how said it is, and tell him that you hope the fighting is over soon and that as few people get hurt as possible. Remind him that wars have occurred throughout history, and that life and the world will go on, despite this particular war.

Some families find that their child s not only unafraid of war but actually becomes preoccupied with military matters and fantasies about going off to foreign lands and fighting distant enemies.  This is a sign of identifying with the values of the larger society.  If this occurs with your youngster and it disturbs you, sit down with him and discuss the differences between the myths and the realities of war.

What if Your Child is Being Bullied?

Whether on the school playground or in the neighborhood park, children in the middle years sometimes find themselves the target of bullies. When that happens, these bullies can not only frighten a youngster, shaking his confidence and spoiling his play, but they can also cause bodily injury.

Avoiding a bully is one reason your child may be reluctant to go to school. Perhaps he is being forced to relinquish his lunch money to this bully. Or he might be fearful of physical harm. If you suspect a problem like this, you need to take action to ensure your child's safety and well-being. Here are some strategies he can adopt with your help, and which will help make him safer:

  • Tell your child not to react to the bully, particularly by giving in to demands. A bully relishes intimidating others and likes nothing better than to see his victim cry or become visibly upset in other ways. Getting that response reinforces the bullying behavior. Your child should try to keep him composure and simply walk away.
  • If your child attempts at disregarding a bully's taunts aren't effective, he should become assertive with his harasser.  While standing tall and looking his tormentor in the eyes, he should clearly and loudly make a statement like "Stop doing that now. If you keep on, I'm going to report you to the principal" or, "I'll talk to you, but I'm not going to fight. So put your fists down now". Sometimes, a strong statement will defuse the situation, and the bully will try to find another, weaker target. Drawing the attention of peers to the bullying situation can embarrass the bully. If your child isn't used to reacting assertively, help him rehearse what he will say if he is confronted.
  • Encourage your child to form strong friendships. A youngster who has loyal friends is less likely to be singled out by a bully, or at least he'll have some allies if he does become a target of harassment.
  • Talk to your son's teacher or to the principal of his school if the situation with the bully persists. You might be reluctant to intervene, perhaps because your child is embarrassed to have you do so, or because you believe he needs to learn to deal with these situation on his own. On the other hand, you don't want you child's self-confidence to weaken, or his physical well-being jeopardized. Your youngster deserves to attend school in a safe environment, even if it means both you and the school staff need to become involved.

Let the principal or teacher talk to the bully when he or she sees the inappropriate behavior taking place on the school grounds. This is generally a more effective approach than having you speak with the child or his parents.

Last Updated
Caring for Your School-Age Child: Ages 5 to 12 (Copyright © 2004 American Academy of Pediatrics)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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