Children's Exposure to Violence: Frequency May Not Be the Best Predictor of Negative Symptoms

sad girl

With the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School this December still fresh in the American conscience, children's exposure to violence has become a widely shared concern.

Whether at home, at school, or in the community, exposure to violence raises concerns about not just the potential for physical harm, but also the longer-term developmental and mental health risks for children. A recent RAND study examines whether and how children's lifetime violence exposure is related to a set of negative symptoms.

How prevalent is children's exposure to violence?

According to a 2009 survey using a nationally representative sample, 61% of children age 17 and younger are exposed to a broad range of crime, violence, and abuse (PDF), including:

  • physical assault (46%)
  • property offenses (25%)
  • maltreatment by a parent or caregiver (10%)
  • witnessing violence at home or in the community (25%)
  • sexual abuse (6%).

What are the risks associated with children's exposure to violence?

Not all children experience measurable harm, but exposure to violence has been linked to various developmental and mental health consequences, including:

  • depression
  • anxiety
  • post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • behavioral / developmental problems.

Exposure can also negatively impact academic achievement in children and is associated with increased stress among caregivers.

What symptoms did the RAND study examine?

Researchers examined three negative symptoms:

  1. child internalizing (e.g., negative self-perceptions) and externalizing (e.g., aggression, hyperactivity, etc.) behavior problems
  2. child PTSD symptoms
  3. parenting stress.

What about violence exposure? How did the researchers measure that?

The RAND study used three different methods of measuring violence exposure:

  1. total frequency of all lifetime exposure
  2. total frequency of all lifetime exposure by broad category:
    • assault
    • maltreatment
    • sexual abuse
    • witnessing violence
  3. polyvictimization (i.e., exposure to multiple violence categories)

What did they find?

Interviews were administered with the primary caregivers of more than 750 children who had been exposed to at least one violent incident in their lifetime. Caregivers reported that children were exposed to an average of nearly 15 incidents of violence in their lifetime—a startling number, considering that the average child age was just under five. Witnessing violence was the most common category of lifetime exposure and the category most frequently experienced. More than half (56%) were exposed to more than one category of violence in their lifetime.

Polyvictimization (exposure to multiple types of violence) emerged as a consistent predictor of all three negative symptoms (child internalizing / externalizing behavior problems, child PTSD, and parenting stress). Exposure to two or more different categories of violence was the “tipping point,” as this resulted in significantly worse symptoms than exposures of a single category, regardless of the frequency of that lifetime exposure.

What can we learn from these findings?

Traditionally, the focus has been on how specific types of violence exposure, such as witnessing domestic violence or experiencing physical abuse, may impact children. However, this narrow perspective may miss the big picture, at least for young children like the ones in this study. These findings suggest that the “mix” of violence exposure experiences may be the key risk factor for producing negative impacts on children, rather than the amount or specific type of experiences.

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