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Children Exposed to Violence

When Children are Exposed to Violence…

Children exposed to trauma can display a range of challenging behaviors, for many reasons (both biological and environmental in origin). From the time children enter this world, and continuing throughout their development, they are taking in and being influenced by their surroundings. These surroundings will go on to affect not only their beliefs and values, but also their physical and emotional growth, development, and overall well-being. When children are exposed to violence, it can change how they develop.

Childhood Development…

Childhood is a time of wonder, exploration and growth. During the first three years of a child’s life, tremendous brain growth and development take place. At birth, a baby’s brain is only about 25% of the adult size it is able to reach. The human brain continues to grow and develop into our mid 20’s. [1] Violence in our relationships, our families and in our homes can stunt the development of children and can change the way their brains develop. These changes can cause long-term effects on their behavior and can alter the way they form attachments and relationships. 15.5 million children in the U.S. live in families in which violence between partners occurred at least once in the past year. [2]


Children learn to understand the world around them by watching others interact in the world
. This is how the youngest of our children, up to teenagers, and even early adults learn to behave. It is through the behavior that has been modeled for them that children learn how to act and react in the world. Modeled behavior and social environments are what teach children cause and effect and helps them to learn how to interact with others and how to predict how they will interact with them. When children are exposed to chaos and violence, it can teach them to expect, and even at times to act, chaotically and violently. Additionally, exposure to traumatic stress can cause elevated levels of cortisol and (depending on age at time of exposure and duration of exposure) can cause the child’s brain to develop differently than their peers raised in homes free from violence. Changes in the body, due to traumatic stress, can lead to difficulty acquiring and retaining information and can even alter the stress responses in children.  [3]

Behaviors common in children exposed to violence…

While it can be difficult to witness the behaviors of children who have been repeatedly exposed to violence, it is important to remember a child’s behavior is their way of communicating with the world around them. It is their way of telling the world, and the people in it, what their story is and what they are trying to “make sense of.” Stress and trauma can cause physiological differences in children and contribute to maladaptive behaviors. Behaviors that are developed very early, in an attempt to survive a violent or chaotic environment, can appear very challenging to the outside world. [4] Instead of focusing on why the child acts like that and what is wrong with the child, it would be more useful to look at how the child adapted in order to survive and “what happened” to the child.

Behaviors commonly observed in children who have had exposure to violence can include the following: Sleep difficulties, somatic complaints (i.e. headaches, tummy aches etc. with no clear medical reason), increased aggressive behavior and angry outbursts, hyper-vigilance, regression, withdrawing, numbing, increased separation anxiety, distractibility, changes in play (which would show before many of the mentioned changes, such as more aggressive play, more withdrawn from play etc.) and decrease in self-esteem. [5]

When children are exposed to violence, it can change how they see the world and how they interact within the world. Exposure to violence can change how they develop and ultimately can change who they develop into as adults.

Stay tuned for next month’s post which will explain how to help children who have been exposed to violence.

[1]    University of Alberta Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry (2011, September 23). Some brain wiring continues to develop well into our 20s.
[2]    http://www.safestartcenter.org/infographics/infographic_cev-domestic-violence.php
[3]    National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (2005). Excessive Stress Disrupts the Architecture of the Developing Brain: Working Paper #3. http://www.developingchild.net
[4]    Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics (2008, September 1). pp 667-673. Understanding the Behavioral and Emotional Consequences of Child Abuse.
[5]    The Child Witness to Violence Project (http://www.childwitnesstoviolence.org/ )

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