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Impact of Violence on Child Development

The communities in which kids grow up can have a deep impact on their adults. Many kids are brought up with a wealth of resources in calm and supportive settings. Millions of kids grow up under adversity circumstances at the other end of the spectrum. This often translates into the lack of fundamental development funds. However, adversity may also represent increased exposure to adverse occurrences that form the results of life.

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One of the most detrimental experiences kids can have is exposure to community violence, affecting how they believe, feel, and behave. Community violence relates to interpersonal community violence not perpetrated by a member of the family and designed to cause damage. It can be a by-product of various conditions, from neighborhood crime and violence to continuing civil or war conflict. Violence exposure is described as the vicarious experience of violence (e.g. hearing about abuse), being the immediate victim of an act of violence, or witnessing violence involving others.

Sadly, too many kids and youth are experiencing elevated rates of exposure to community violence in the U.S. and internationally. For instance, 55% of teenagers revealed some sort of exposure to community violence in a nationwide U.S. study. Homicide is the second major cause of death for teenagers between the ages of 10 and 24 in the United States at this moment, although this figure involves family violence and other forms of violent victimization. These elevated levels extend to lower kinds of violence participation. For example, according to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which was conducted annually with a nationally representative survey of high school students, 32 percent of the youth report was in one or more physical fights over the past year. Although violence cuts across social and demographic lines, in inner city and urban poor neighborhoods, exposure to community violence is greatest.

What is the effect of exposure to violence on the growth of children? One clear message is that “violence engenders violence”–kids experiencing violence are more likely to get caught up in a cycle of violence that leads to future violent conduct, including aggression, delinquency, violent crime, and child abuse. This applies to all kinds of exposure to childhood violence, including but not restricted to community violence.

Furthermore, exposure to violence during childhood and adolescence has been shown to contribute to mental health issues. There are greater rates of psychiatric disorders including depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among youth subjected to community violence. Many kids experience more than one symptom or disorder. For instance, approximately half of children diagnosed with PTSD had a diagnosis of comorbid anxiety in a domestic study of teenage exposure to violence, and approximately one-third had a comorbid drug use disorder. More than two-thirds of the women diagnosed with PTSD also had a comorbid depression diagnosis and one-quarter had a comorbid use disorder.

Repeated exposure to community violence for very young kids can lead to issues forming beneficial and trusting relationships that kids need to explore their workplace and create a safe feeling of self. Difficulties forming these relationships of attachment can interfere with the growth of a fundamental sense of confidence and compromise future relationships well into adulthood. The impact of these experiences on the developing brain of the child is of specific interest. Furthermore, as the brain grows sequentially, early-life disruptions can set a physiological development chain in motion that becomes increasingly hard to interrupt. For kids “incubated in terror,” neurobiological adaptations that enable the baby to survive in violent environments can eventually lead to violence and mental health issues even when they are no longer adaptive.

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Human survival in reaction to prospective threats relies on activating the “fight or flight” reaction. However, for some kids, increased exposure to community violence generates a steady state of fear, activating the central nervous system’s stress response apparatus. This argues for a host of problematic results, including hypersensitivity to external stimuli, enhanced shock response, and regulatory impact issues. These responses set the stage for issues of mental health, distorted cognitions and behaviors with issues.

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