What's the effect of children's exposure to actual violence as victims or as witnesses?

Children can suffer from violence even if they aren't the direct victim.
Children can suffer from violence even if they aren't the direct victim.

Scientists, psychologists and other experts have been studying how violence affects children for several decades. On the surface, the effects may seem obvious. Children who are victims of or witnesses to violence may experience behavioral and developmental problems. But the issue is far more complex than a simple cause-and-effect relationship.

Our personalities are complicated -- you can't simply point to a specific moment as the genesis for a particular trait or flaw. We're the product of thousands of influences and we encounter new ones each day. While there's no question that exposure to violence can and does affect children negatively, it's difficult to measure the extent of the effect. Is a child's aggression the result of witnessing violence or could it be the result of growing up in a poor community or in an unsupportive home environment? Did the child suffer other forms of abuse or neglect? It's challenging, if not impossible, to determine how much of an effect violence has on a child's behavior and personality.

Even so, there are dozens of studies that indicate children who suffer or witness violence may experience short- and long-term negative effects. The severity of the child's reaction depends upon several factors, including the child's age, gender, community and support system. The intensity, frequency, duration and nature of the violence also matter. Some children may experience more severe effects than others with a similar background. There's no cheat sheet to explain exactly what will happen to any individual child.

It's important to conduct more research and gather more data. By creating standard definitions for terms like violence, domestic violence and community, researchers can create a more meaningful picture of how violence can affect children. It's also important to find ways to measure these effects and to take all the factors into account. By narrowing the focus of each study, we may be able to develop the best methods to counsel and treat children exposed to violence as well as develop strategies for violence prevention.

Let's look at some of the short- and long-term effects violence can have on children.