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