Violence in the United States has claimed thousands of lives and annually
costs hundreds of millions of dollars in medical care and lost wages. In the
context of this digest, the term VIOLENCE is used to refer to child abuse or
other domestic conflict, gang aggression, and community crime, including
assault. One of the most pernicious consequences of violence is its effect on
the development of children. This digest examines the developmental
consequences for children who are the victims of, or witnesses to, family and
VIOLENCE IN THE PRESCHOOL YEARS
Children growing up with violence are at risk for pathological development.
According to Erikson's classical exposition of individual development,
learning to trust is the infant's primary task during the first year of life.
Trust provides the foundation for further development and forms the basis for
self-confidence and self-esteem. The baby's ability to trust is dependent
upon the family's ability to provide consistent care and to respond to the
infant's need for love and stimulation. Caregiving is compromised when the
infant's family lives in a community racked by violence and when the family
fears for its safety. Parents may not give an infant proper care when their
psychological energy is sapped by efforts to keep safe (Halpern, 1990).
Routine tasks like going to work, shopping, and keeping clinic appointments
take careful planning and extra effort.
When infants reach toddlerhood they have an inner push to try newly gained
skills, such as walking, jumping, and climbing. These skills are best
practiced in parks and playgrounds, not in crowded apartments. But young
children who live in communities racked by crime and menaced by gangs are
often not permitted to be out-of-doors. Instead, they are confined to small
quarters that hamper their activities, and that lead to restrictions imposed
by parents and older family members (Scheinfeld, 1983). These restrictions,
which are difficult for toddlers to understand and to obey, can lead in turn
to disruptions in their relationships with the rest of the family.
During the preschool years, young children are ready to venture outside of
the family in order to make new relationships and learn about other people
(Spock, 1988). However, when they live in neighborhoods where dangers lurk
outside, children may be prevented from going out to play or even from
accompanying older children on errands. In addition, preschoolers may be in
child care programs that are located in areas where violent acts occur
VIOLENCE: THE SCHOOL YEARS
Although the early years are critical in setting the stage for future
development, the experiences of the school years are also important to
children's healthy growth. During the school years, children develop the
social and academic skills necessary to function as adults and citizens;
violence at home or in the community takes a high toll.
* When children's energies are drained because they are defending themselves
against outside dangers or warding off their own fears, they have difficulty
learning in school (Craig, 1992). Children traumatized by violence can have
distorted memories, and their cognitive functions can be compromised (Terr,
* Children who have been victimized by or who have seen others victimized by
violence may have trouble learning to get along with others. The anger that
is often instilled in such children is likely to be incorporated into their
personality structures. Carrying an extra load of anger makes it difficult
for them to control their behavior and increases their risk for resorting to
* Children learn social skills by identifying with adults in their lives.
Children cannot learn nonaggressive ways of interacting with others when
their only models, including those in the media, use physical force to solve
problems (Garbarino et al., 1992).
* To control their fears, children who live with violence may repress
feelings. This defensive maneuver takes its toll in their immediate lives and
can lead to further pathological development. It can interfere with their
ability to relate to others in meaningful ways and to feel empathy.
Individuals who cannot empathize with others' feelings are less likely to
curb their own aggression, and more likely to become insensitive to brutality
in general. Knowing how some youths become emotionally bankrupt in this way
helps us understand why they are so careless with their own lives and with
the lives of others (Gilligan, 1991).
* Children who are traumatized by violence may have difficulty seeing
themselves in future roles that are meaningful. The California school
children who were kidnapped and held hostage in their bus were found to have
limited views of their future lives and often anticipated disaster (Terr,
1983). Children who cannot see a decent future for themselves have a hard
time concentrating on present tasks such as learning in school and becoming
* Children need to feel that they can direct some part of their existence,
but children who live with violence learn that they have little say in what
happens to them. Beginning with the restrictions on autonomy when they are
toddlers, this sense of helplessness continues as they reach school age. Not
only do they encounter the constraints that all children do, but their
freedom is restricted by an environment in which gangs and drug dealers
control the streets.
* When children experience a trauma, a common reaction is to regress to an
earlier stage when things were easier. This regression can be therapeutic by
allowing the child to postpone having to face the feelings aroused by the
traumatic event. It is a way of gaining psychological strength. However, when
children face continual stress they are in danger of remaining
psychologically in an earlier stage of development.
INDIVIDUAL DIFFERENCES AND RESILIENCE
Not all children respond to difficult situations in the same way; there are
many factors that influence coping abilities, including age, family reaction
to stress, and temperament. Younger children are more likely to succumb to
stress than school-age children or adolescents. Infants can be shielded from
outside forces if their caregivers are psychologically strong and available
to the baby.
Children who live in stable, supportive homes have a better chance of coping
because they are surrounded by nurturing adults. If grown-ups are willing to
listen to children's fears and provide appropriate outlets for them, children
are better able to contend with the difficulties in their lives. Children are
more resilient if they are born with easy temperaments and are in good mental
health. If they are lucky enough to have strong parents who can withstand the
stresses of poverty and community violence, children also have a better
chance of growing into happy and productive adults (Garmezy & Rutter, 1983).
ADAPTABILITY IN CHILDREN
Although what happens to them in the early years is very important, many
children can overcome the hurts and fears of earlier times. For children
living in an atmosphere of stress and violence, the ability to make
relationships and get from others what they miss in their own families and
communities is crucial to healthy development.
The staff in schools, day care centers, and recreational programs can be
resources to children and offer them alternative perceptions of themselves,
as well as teaching them skills for getting along in the world. With time,
effort, and skill, caregivers can provide children with an opportunity to
challenge the odds and turn their lives in a positive direction.
Violence and Young Children's Development. ERIC Digest.
Author: Wallach, Lorraine B.
ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education, Urbana, Ill.
THIS DIGEST WAS CREATED BY ERIC, THE EDUCATIONAL RESOURCES INFORMATION