Seeing Violence Can Affect Kids More Than Adults Realize
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
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
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and were often depressed, anxious, and withdrawn, the study says.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
"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
"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."
The study interviewed the children and their parents separately about each
child's exposure to violence. For the children, researchers used cartoon
depictions of such acts as shooting, robbery, beating, and shoving to determine
how much violence they had been exposed to.
Parents and children were also asked whether the children showed any
behavior problems. Again using cartoon figures, children were asked whether
they had feelings of sadness, a lack of appetite, a fear of going outside
because of possible violence, upsetting memories, or nightmares.
On almost all measures, the children reported higher levels of exposure than
the parents reported. For example, 37% of the children said they had witnessed
severe violence, but only 7.7% of the parents reported this. Similarly, 31% of
the children said they were victims of severe violence, but only 0.8% of
parents said their children were victims.