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Seeing Violence Can Affect Kids More Than Adults Realize

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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.

Shahinfar believes this may be because parents are unaware of their children's exposure to violence -- for instance, if the child spends part of his day in child care -- or because the parents may repress such information.

"We need to be sensitive to the idea that kids may not perceive violence in the same way as adults do," Shahinfar tells WebMD. "We need to let kids tell us what has been traumatic for them and to help them work through those feelings."

The investigators realized that not all children were able to give accurate answers when questioned, and some often mixed fantasy with reality. However, close to half of the children were thought to have shown a high level of understanding.

"It's time to move beyond saying that young children are not affected by witnessing violence. In fact, they are affected by witnessing violence and it can impact them in very significant ways," Joy Osofsky PhD, tells WebMD. Osofsky, a professor of public health, psychiatry, and pediatrics at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in New Orleans, reviewed the study for WebMD.

She says that both the public and physicians must recognize that witnessing violence is a problem and that something can be done.

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