Parallel with the increase in homicides and violent crime that began in the mid-1980s was a growing concern over youth’s exposure to community violence. Distinguished from family violence by its location— violence that occurs outside of the home—community violence is a relatively broad term that refers to witnessing of violence, but also frequently includes personal victimization and knowing of others who have been victimized. Community violence exposure (CVE) may affect children’s socioemotional development, beliefs about the world, school performance, and mental health. Children exposed to community violence are often at greater risk for a number of clinical and adjustment problems, most notably posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and aggression.
Estimates of the number of children exposed to community violence fluctuate with the amount of violence in the larger community, the sample on which the estimate is based, and the manner in which CVE is measured. Most studies in this area have been done with children and adolescents who, because of location or income, are at risk for CVE. Measures that combine relatively minor (e.g., seeing a dead body, a drug deal, a fight) and lethal and potentially lethal events (shootings, stabbings, killings), plus victimization and hearing about violence, find that 90% of these children have CVE. Focusing on more lethal and near lethal events, research finds that 25% to 70% of children in high-violence neighborhoods have seen a shooting. Children’s CVE often occurs in a cumulative manner from witnessing to victimization to perpetration. Children who perpetrate community violence frequently have been victimized by and witnessed violent events. Community violence is often characterized by its chronic nature: children frequently have experienced multiple acts and different types of violence.
Most research on CVE has been done with African American children who reside in high-violence areas. Studies with more representative populations find that White and Latino youth are also at risk for CVE, but that African American children are exposed to more violence and more serious violence.
Children traumatized by community violence may display a range of disorders and maladaptive behaviors. Most research on CVE among children and youth has focused on PTSD symptoms and externalizing behaviors (acting out, aggression, delinquency). First used to describe the reactions of soldiers during war, PTSD occurs in response to an extreme stressor and is characterized by specific behaviors in the categories of re-experiencing the event, avoidance of reminders and psychic numbing, and increased arousal that last for at least a month. In particular, traumatized children are likely to engage in repetitive play and reenactments of the event, display subdued behavior and affect with less interest in previously enjoyed activities, and have sleep disturbances. Children often have trauma specific fears and worry about a recurrence of the event. These children may be pessimistic about their future (not believe that they will live very long) and have difficulty forming close personal relationships. In addition to PTSD, these children are at risk for depression and substance abuse.
In addition to the above internalizing symptoms children affected by community violence are more likely to display externalizing behaviors, characterized by anger, aggression, acting out and delinquency, and substance use. This aggression may be a result of modeling, or beliefs about the efficacy and acceptability of force and violence in one’s relationships that comes from existence in a violent milieu. Some research has found that children exposed to chronic violence, which is characteristic of community violence, display more externalizing than internalizing symptoms or may display such symptoms in the absence of depression and anxiety-related reactions. As children often know the victims of community violence, they frequently experience grief, in addition to trauma symptoms, which further complicates their recovery. When the victim is a relative or close family friend, the entire family may be traumatized, seriously undermining its ability to support the child’s recovery and healing.
Specific behaviors displayed by children traumatized by CVE depend on their developmental level. For example, very young children may show regressive behaviors such as extreme anxiety when separated from the caregiver, bedwetting, and decreased verbalization. School-age children may report more fights and academic difficulties, while teenagers’ symptoms include more risk taking and self-destructive behavior. If not addressed, trauma symptoms can impact the child’s development, resulting in diminished life chances over the lifespan. Intrusive images, trouble concentrating, or fatigue from sleep disturbances can lead to difficulty with learning and school performance, which has long-term implications for achievement and success. Aggressive behaviors and difficulties getting along with others may negatively impact the traumatized child’s ability to form positive and supportive relationships, which, in turn, may be replaced by involvement with more deviant peers, a primary factor in subsequent engagement in antisocial activities.
Several individual and event-related characteristics affect the strength of the relationship between CVE and any potential consequences. While boys are more likely to experience community violence, girls seem to be more affected by their exposure. In comparison to boys, violence-exposed girls report more PTSD related symptoms. However, recent research has not found clear gender differences in externalizing behaviors, with violence-exposed girls at similar risk as boys for aggression and acting out.
Several characteristics of the incident may affect the impact of CVE. Children in the greatest physical danger and in closest physical proximity to the incident frequently have the most severe reactions. In addition, children are most distressed by incidents involving those with whom they have close personal relationships. Some research has shown that children are only affected by those incidents that involve known others.
Like adults, children who dissociate during the event may be most likely to develop PTSD, which has been related to the development of additional symptoms. For example, children with PTSD are most likely to also be depressed and to use substances. Such results suggest that PTSD functions as a pathway between traumatic exposure and additional negative outcomes, indicating the importance of addressing the trauma early on to avoid the occurrence of PTSD.
There is wide variation in the impact of CVE. While violence-exposed children are more likely to be distressed than their nonexposed counterparts, the majority of children experiencing CVE do not report severe symptoms. Many factors may account for this, including the operation of the moderators described above and other individual, familial, and community level variables. Children who are exposed to both community violence and family violence are more at risk for negative consequences. Also, a child’s personal competency, social support from friends and family, and warm parental relationships serve some protective functions, but only when violence exposure and threat are not extreme.
- Buka, S. L., Stichick, T. L., Birdthistle, S. M., & Earls, F. J. (2001). Youth exposure to violence: Prevalence, risks and consequences. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 71, 298–310.
- Jenkins, E. J., & Bell, C. C. (1997). Exposure and response to community violence among African American children and adolescents. In J. Osofsky (Ed.), Children in a violent society (pp. 9–31). New York: Guilford Press.
- National Child Traumatic Stress Network and National Center for PTSD. (2006). Psychological first aid: Field operations guide (2nd ed.). Retrieved from http://www.nctsn.org and http://www.ncptsd.va.gov
- Ozer, E. J., Richards, M., & Kliewer, W. (Eds.). (2004). Protective factors in the relationship between community violence exposure and adjustment in youth [Special section]. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 33(3).
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