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Community Violence: The Effects on Children



These are the voices of mothers living in dangerous neighborhoods:

I worry about my kids being molested, my house being burglarized, my oldest boy being shot.

Young men are selling drugs; we are innocent bystanders being bothered as we walk by.

There's fighting, shooting or cutting someone up outside the house all the time.

Out there is a jungle; innocent people get killed.

These are the voices of their children:

A man was lying on the street - I thought he was dead.

I'm afraid of being mistaken for someone else and shot at. I'll be a victim by just being there.

If someone is shooting, you might get the bullet even if it wasn't meant for you.

(Selected narratives from 160 mothers. Linares et al, in press)

What is community violence?

Most urban children, by the time they enter high school, have seen the use of weapons, guns or other acts of violence against people in their neighborhood or school. Community violence (CV) refers to exposure, as a witness or through actual experience, to acts of interpersonal violence perpetrated by individuals who are not intimately related to the victim. In contrast to community violence, domestic violence refers to acts of interpersonal violence between adult intimate partners.

In communities with high rates of community violence, many families experience chronic stress and worry. Parents attribute their concerns to both local crimes such as sexual assault, burglary, use of weapons, muggings, the sounds of bullet shots, as well as to social disorder issues such as the presence of graffiti, teen gangs, drugs, and racial divisions.

Exposure to community violence is particularly prevalent in poor inner-city neighborhoods. Children in these neighborhoods are at increased risk of exposure to community violence as compared to children residing in less economically distressed suburban areas.

In addition to studying random violent acts by strangers, researchers are now studying common verbal and non-verbal aggressive acts performed by children against other children or adults in their own community. For example, children are commonly bullied or victimized in verbally aggressive ways by older children as they walk to school, ride the school bus, or play in the park. These acts were originally considered innocent playfulness and not thought of as community violence. They are now, however, becoming of great concern to parents, educators and community leaders and are being investigated as possible precursors of more serious instances of community violence.

How does community violence affect children?

Children may be adversely affected regardless of whether they are victims or witnesses. For example, children are exposed to community violence when they witness a stranger in the street, a casual acquaintance from their neighborhood, or another student at their school, physically assaulting another person for the purpose of robbing him, settling a fight, venting anger, or making a threatening statement. Children are victims of community violence when they are the subject of a physical attack, or a threat of a physical attack, with or without a weapon, by anyone who is not in their intimate circle; e.g. someone other than a parent, caregiver, friend, or other individual living in the house.

Past research has documented that exposure to community violence may have enduring consequences on children's development, beginning in the pre-school years and continuing through adolescence. The research has demonstrated that children who witness community violence are likely to develop a view of the world that is hostile and dangerous. In addition, children in inner-city neighborhoods with high violent crime rates are also likely to be exposed to domestic violence in their own homes. Thus poor children residing in high crime areas are at double jeopardy: they are highly vulnerable for being victimized by different forms of interpersonal violence. Research has documented that children who are exposed to multiple forms of violence are at more risk of developing psychological sequelae than those exposed to only single or isolated violent events (either at home or in the community).

As a result of continued exposure to violence children may distrust adults and fear neighbors in their community. Their feelings of safety and confidence in adults may erode or diminish. Reactions may take several forms. Some children may become anxious, fearful or withdrawn, symptoms that are referred to as internalizing problems, or taking fears inward. On the other hand, children who witness violence may believe that the use of violence is justified and shows they are strong and powerful. They may learn to use violence to attain their wishes, or to identify with the aggressor, as a way to solve interpersonal conflict with the adult world or with their peers. These children show externalizing problems, that is, their fears may be expressed outward.

Children who witness acts of interpersonal violence as random or that targets bystanders are at risk of developing a cluster of psychological symptoms related to posttraumatic stress. This can include avoidance of painful memories while at the same time re-experiencing the traumatic event (through repetitive play or 'flashbacks' of the trauma). Traumatized children have fewer resources to deal with current developmental challenges, such as performing well in school or making and keeping friends. Although they are not fully aware of their preoccupation with the past, children may have difficulty concentrating on the 'here and now'' because their emotional energy is devoted to avoiding the past and fighting the negative memories. It is important to remember, however, that after the initial shock and fear many children exposed to community violence may not develop symptoms related to posttraumatic stress and that in some children symptoms may develop only later in life.

In general, the research shows that children are at greater risk for negative psychological effects, such as fear, distress or acting-out aggression if:

  • they are victims
  • they are exposed to chronic or multiple events, rather than a single isolated event
  • their mothers show distress in reacting to the same violent events
  • they lack the social support of other understanding adults.

Prevention and intervention

Past research on the intergenerational cycle of violence indicates that adults who were traumatized as children are more likely to commit crimes at a later age. To avoid this repetition, it is important to provide intervention at an early age to children who are exposed to or are victims of community violence.

The goals of primary prevention of youth violence, particularly during early childhood, are to help children:

  • develop pro-social ways to deal with everyday frustrations and peer conflict
  • learn problem-solving skills
  • practice non-violent negotiation strategies

Intervention programs vary. They can take place at the level of:

  • The child, particularly the preschooler who has difficulty talking about painful memories and needs the support of a caring adult to feel safe
  • The parents, by helping them develop appropriate techniques and enhancing family coping strategies
  • The community, by upgrading the services and the quality of the neighborhood

Intervention programs may vary by type:

  • Indicated programs focus on children already identified
  • Selective programs focus on high-risk children
  • Universal programs, often in specialized settings, are directed at all

By acknowledging the existence of community violence and understanding the added risk to children from domestic violence and other aggressive interactions, we can effectively promote a child's positive outlook on life.