Reality Check: The Effect of Violence on Youth

Between the pandemic, civil unrest, and the uptick in opioid overdoses, our nation is experiencing ever compounding hardships, and our children, unfortunately, are being grossly impacted. In Madison, the increase in violence, targeted and otherwise, is forcing too many of our young people to reckon with tragedy beyond the scope of what their developing minds can or should need to handle.

While we understand that we cannot shield our children from many of the events that take place in our community, we need to help them learn to cope and help each other recognize the warning signs of mental and emotional distress. We should also look inward for what we have done to create such an environment and use that information to effect the necessary change to ensure this cycle ends.

The Research

Research shows that exposure to violence can lead to the development of behavioral, emotional, and/or learning problems in young brains. How is this significant? Well, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), “…about one-quarter of children experience some form of violence exposure as juveniles. Prevalence rates that count victims conceal the fact that children who are exposed to one incident of violent victimization are likely to be repeatedly exposed to the same type of violence and to experience multiple different types of victimization. Furthermore, juvenile victimization increases the risk of adult violence victimization.”

Some facts…

  1. Violence exposure is one of the most common and severe sources of human stress.

  2. Stress, in general, affects health, and studying violence exposure, in particular, provides a strong test of it.

  3. Violence exposure can be measured with fairly good reliability and validity, which is an advantage over many other adversities and stressors.

  4. Violence victimization is already a clear target of public-health and law-enforcement prevention efforts, as well as many clinical psychosocial intervention programs, providing opportunities for research into reversibility of putative effects of violence on stress biology.


The NIH asserts that the effects may not be solely psychological. They say, “When a child experiences violence, adults tend to focus on the child’s learning in school, and anxiety, depression, or aggressive reactions because these are pressing psychological needs after the child is restored to safety. But recent research indicates there is also room for concern about less visible adverse effects on a child’s physical health, for decades into his or her future. Public awareness of the connection between childhood stress and adult physical health and age-related disease has the potential to galvanize political will toward prevention and treatment.” This highlights a need for earlier intervention, increased public awareness, and earlier introduction to constructive coping strategies.

We do have these resources available to families in our community, but with a stigma still attached to mental health, addiction, and domestic abuse concerns, we are seeing a harmful trend of “DIY child psychology.” The NIH echoes this sentiment by stating, “Great strides have been made toward designing treatments that work for children and adolescents who have learning, emotional and behavioral problems, as well as programs to prevent such problems among children at risk. However, today, only a small fraction of young people have access to these effective treatments and preventions.”

The Signs

According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the signs of traumatic stress are different in each child. Young children react differently than older children. For some children, these reactions can interfere with daily life and their ability to function and interact with others.

Preschool Children

  • Fearing separation from parents or caregivers

  • Crying and/or screaming a lot

  • Eating poorly and losing weight

  • Having nightmares

Elementary School Children

  • Becoming anxious or fearful

  • Feeling guilt or shame

  • Having a hard time concentrating

  • Having difficulty sleeping

Middle and High School Children

  • Feeling depressed or alone

  • Developing eating disorders and self-harming behaviors

  • Beginning to abuse alcohol or drugs

  • Becoming sexually active


How to Intervene

Understand that not all children experience child traumatic stress after experiencing a traumatic event, but those who do can recover. With proper support, many children are able to adapt to and overcome such experiences.

As a family member or other caring adult, you can play an important role.


Remember to...



  • Assure the child that he or she is safe. Talk about the measures you are taking to get the child help and keep him or her safe at home and school.

  • Explain to the child that he or she is not responsible for what happened. Children often blame themselves for events, even those events that are completely out of their control.

  • Be patient. There is no correct timetable for healing. Some children will recover quickly. Others recover more slowly. Try to be supportive and reassure the child that he or she does not need to feel guilty or bad about any feelings or thoughts.

  • Review NCTSI’s learning materials for parents and caregivers, educators and school personnel, health professionals, and others.


Treatment Options

Even with the support of family members and others, some children do not recover on their own. When needed, a mental health professional trained in evidence-based trauma treatment can help children and families cope with the impact of traumatic events and move toward recovery.

Effective treatments like trauma-focused cognitive-behavioral therapies are available. There are a number of evidence-based and promising practices to address child traumatic stress. Each child’s treatment depends on the nature, timing, and amount of exposure to trauma. Review Effective Treatments for Youth Trauma – 2004 (PDF | 55 KB) at the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.

Families and caregivers should ask their pediatrician, family physician, school counselor, or clergy member for a referral to a mental health professional and discuss available treatment options.

At Home Coping Skills

Creating Change Going Forward

As noted, we need to reflect on our own responsibility in contributing to the negativity in the world we live in. We need to ensure that we are not continuing to place those burdens on our young people. By trying to solve the issues on our own, are we keeping any important information or resources from them?

We also need to ensure that we are raising our children to believe that they are capable of changing the world. We need to instill that confidence, that sense of togetherness, and that stability in them. Big task! Here are a few good articles to get you started:

© 2023 by Associated Physicians, LLP

4410 Regent St. Madison, WI 53705

608-233-9746

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