A series of studies by different researchers has confirmed the obvious; that children witnessing violence are detrimentally impacted and are more likely to perpetuate violence.
The schoolchildren who had witnessed violence were more aggressive. Witnessing violence also had a delayed effect — observing violence at the first phase of the study predicted more aggression six months later, over and above how aggressive the children were in the beginning.
The same effect occurred for being a victim of violence. Victimization at the first phase of the study was associated with more aggression six months later, even given the high levels of aggression at the study’s start.
The increased aggression was caused in part by a change in how the children thought that violence was normal. Seeing violence — at home, school, on TV, or as its victim — made it seem common, normal, and acceptable. Thinking that aggression is “normal” led to more of it.
“Exposure to violence can also increase aggression regardless of whether at home, at school, in or in the virtual world of TV, regardless of whether the person is a witness or a victim,” the authors wrote. “People exposed to a heavy diet of violence come to believe that aggression is a normal way to solve conflict and get what you want in life. These beliefs lower their inhibitions against aggression against others.”
Another study, by Case Western Reserve University published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, investigated the impact of violence and aggression in children 3 years old and younger who witnessed violence between their mothers and partners.
The National Center for Children Exposed to Violence estimates that between 3-10 million children annually witness some from of domestic violence.
“People may think children that young are passive and unaware, but they pay attention to what’s happening around them,” said Megan Holmes, assistant professor of social work at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland.
In the study, “The sleeper effect of intimate partner violence (IPV) exposure: long-term consequences on young children’s aggressive behavior,” Holmes analyzed the behavior of 107 children exposed to IPV in their first three years but never again after age 3. The outcomes of those children were compared to 339 children who were never exposed.
Holmes’s research examined the timing, duration and nature of their exposure to violence and how it affected aggressive behavior.
Analyzing aggressive behaviors, Holmes saw no behavioral differences between those who did or did not witness violence between the ages of 3 and 5, but children exposed to violence increased their aggression when they reached school age. And the more frequently IPV was witnessed, the more aggressive the behaviors became.
Meanwhile, children never exposed to IPV gradually decreased in aggression.
Knowing about the delayed effect on children is important for social workers assessing the impact on children in homes with domestic violence, Holmes said.
“The delay also gives social workers a window of opportunity between ages 3 and 5 to help the children socialize and learn what is appropriate behavior,” said Holmes, who has worked with mothers and children in domestic violence shelters.
Interventions can include play and art therapies to help children work through the violence they were exposed to.
A doctoral thesis by Kajsa Åsling Monemi from Uppsala University examined the health impact of children who witnessed their mothers exposed to violence and found that children whose mothers are exposed to violence have failure to thrive syndrome.
Kajsa Åsling Monemi,a paediatrician and the Department of Women’s and Children’s Health, monitored more than 3,000 children in Bangladesh from the women’s pregnancy test till when the children were two years old. The study shows that children to women exposed to some form of violence had lower birth weights and grew less as infants and toddlers. They also got sick more often than other children with diseases like diarrhea and pneumonia.
“Both in Bangladesh and Nicaragua deaths before the age of five were more common among children whose mothers had been exposed to violence than among children of women who had never been subjected to violence,” she reports.
“My studies indicate that the health consequences of violence against women within the family in a global perspective are greater than we previously knew,” says Kajsa Åsling Monemi.
Megan R. Holmes. The sleeper effect of intimate partner violence exposure: long-term consequences on young children’s aggressive behavior. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 2013; DOI: 10.1111/jcpp.12071
Orue, B. J. Bushman, E. Calvete, S. Thomaes, B. Orobio de Castro, R. Hutteman. Monkey See, Monkey Do, Monkey Hurt: Longitudinal Effects of Exposure to Violence on Children’s Aggressive Behavior. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2011; DOI: 10.1177/194855