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Health & Parenting

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Seeing Violence Can Affect Kids More Than Adults Realize

WebMD Health News

March 8, 2000 (New York) -- Young children who have witnessed acts of violence, even if they were not directly involved, can be deeply affected, a new study shows. But because these kids often show no obvious symptoms of harm, it's easy for parents, educators, and doctors to overlook the damage done to them.

Further, parents are not always aware that their preschoolers have been exposed to violence -- either because it happened when the child was away from home, or because the parents are repressing such information, says the study, published in a recent issue of the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry.

Preschoolers who had witnessed violence tended to internalize their problems and were often depressed, anxious, and withdrawn, the study says. In contrast, victims of mild violence were apt to engage in aggressive and disruptive behaviors.

"We often pay attention to kids with obvious symptoms of exposure to violence, like aggression," says study author Ariana Shahinfar, PhD. "This highlights the importance of paying attention to children who are witnesses and who may not show on the outside that they are being affected by violence, but are certainly showing symptoms on the inside." Shahinfar is a psychologist at La Salle University in Philadelphia.

The study looked at 155 families with children 3 1/2 to 4 1/2 years old who were enrolled in a Head Start program in a "moderately violent" neighborhood near Washington, D.C. It found that three-quarters of the children reported that they had witnessed or been a victim of at least one violent incident, but only two-thirds of the parents said this had happened to their children.

"We've been more concerned about adolescents and violence because that's where we see a lot of dangerous behavior occurring," Shahinfar tells WebMD. "Our findings show that violence is significant in young children's lives as well as in older children's lives. We need to recognize that we need to move down the age groups we consider being at risk ... and we need to move down in age the kids we are offering intervention and prevention programs to."

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