About Childhood Exposure to Violence

We now know that the brain’s architecture is built over time and from the bottom up, much like a house, and that severe or repeated exposure to violence and trauma can cause toxic stress responses in children which can weaken the brain’s architecture, with damaging effects on health, learning and behavior across the lifespan.

But research tells us that a supportive, stable relationship with at least one key caregiver in a child’s life can buffer toxic stress, thereby preventing or reversing its effects. That is why it is essential for communities to put in place strategies that can help prevent such adverse experiences from becoming toxic.

What’s at stake

We now know that the brain’s architecture is built over time and from the bottom up, much like a house. Sturdy architecture is built when children have stable, positive experiences and relationships with caring adults at home and in the community. But severe or repeated exposure to violence and trauma can cause toxic stress responses in children which can weaken the brain’s architecture, with damaging effects on health, learning and behavior across the lifespan.

Evidence based solutions

Research also suggests that a supportive, stable relationship with at least one key caregiver in a child’s life can buffer toxic stress, thereby preventing or reversing its effects. That is why it is essential for communities to put in place strategies that can help prevent such adverse experiences from becoming toxic. And for children confronting significant risk – those whose toxic stress responses are continual, or are triggered by multiple sources – early intervention can shore up fragile foundations, effectively changing the course of their development.

Children’s Resiliency

Children are very resilient, but they are not unbreakable. No matter their age, children may be deeply hurt when they are physically, sexually or emotionally abused or when they see or hear violence in their homes or communities. When children see and hear too much that is frightening, their world feels unsafe and insecure. Exposure to violence, especially when it is ongoing and intense, can harm children’s natural, healthy development unless they receive support to help them cope and heal.

Facts About Children and Violence

  • Young children have the highest rate of abuse and neglect*
  • Children are more likely to be exposed to violence and crime than adults**
  • Sixty percent of American children were exposed to violence, crime or abuse in their homes, schools and communities**
  • As a child’s exposure to one type of violence increases the likelihood that the child will be exposed to other types of violence and exposed multiple times**

Common Reactions

  • Difficulty controlling emotions (ex. frequent temper tantrums)
  • Worry about being separated from caregiver and/or cling to caregiver
  • Difficult to soothe – irritable, fussy or have difficulty calming down
  • Repeat events over and over in play and/or conversation
  • Sleep troubles, nightmares, fear of falling asleep
  • Headaches, stomach aches, other aches and pains
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Withdrawing from friends and activities
  • Not showing feelings about anything
  • Loss of skills learned earlier
  • Increased worry or depression

What Every Caring Adult Can Do

  • If a child is in imminent danger – call 911
  • Help connect a child to appropriate services and resources
  • Provide children opportunities to ask questions and answer them factually and age appropriately
  • Remain calm and reinforce a stable and safe environment
  • Keep regular schedule or routine for meals, quiet time, playtime and bedtime
  • Help children prepare for changes and new experiences
  • Be patient and let children identify and express feelings
  • Provide extra attention, comfort and encouragement

* National Child Traumatic Stress Network

** Finkelhor, D. Turner, H. Ormrod, R. Hamby, S. and Kracke, K. 2009. Children’s Exposure to Violence: A Comprehensive National Survey

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