New research finds that children exposed to violence at home or school have greater levels of anxiety and depression than children who experience brutality only in their neighborhood.

Researchers from the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) Department of Psychology publish their findings in the online edition of the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

Accordingly, they underscore the importance of a safe home environment for healthy emotional and behavioral development in childhood and adolescence.

“Our study shows that violence closest to home has the greatest effect on kids,” said UAB psychologist Sylvie Mrug, Ph.D., the study’s principal investigator, “It doesn’t mean that violence in a community is less important, but that violence prevention in the home and at school is relatively more important. And it makes sense.”

The UAB study is one of the first to examine the effect of exposure to violence in multiple settings on the emotions and behavior of children.

Eighty-two percent of the 603 middle-school students surveyed reported seeing violence, being threatened with violence or being the victim of violence in the past year. Researchers wanted to assess the risks of each to sound mental health and determine if multiple sources modified the overall effects of exposure to violence.

“Children are exposed to multiple types of violence across multiple settings,” Mrug said.

“We also know that exposure in some settings is related. For instance, a child exposed to violence in their community is more likely to experience violence at school. Looking at multiple contexts is the only way to know the overall impact of exposure to violence on children.”

Children who reported the highest levels of anxiety and depression had witnessed or were victims of domestic or school violence, Mrug said, and children who were exposed only to domestic violence were more likely than other children to become aggressive over time.

Surprisingly, children who witnessed violence at home and in their community reported fewer anxiety, depression and aggression problems than children who experienced violence in only one setting.

Mrug speculates these children have become more desensitized to violence and suggests research is needed to determine if this short-term coping mechanism leads to poorer outcomes later in life.

The fewest mental health problems were found in children who did not witness violence in either setting. Sexual violence was not assessed in the study.

Michael Windle, Ph.D., a psychologist at Emory University, is co-author of the study. The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Source: University of Alabama at Birmingham