New research suggests exposure to violence in children under the age of three may lead to aggression in school age youngsters.
“People may think children that young are passive and unaware, but they pay attention to what’s happening around them,” said Megan Holmes, Ph.D., assistant professor of social work at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland.
Between three and 10 million children witness some form of domestic violence each year, say experts from the National Center for Children Exposed to Violence.
Holmes said researchers know the impact of recent exposure to violence, but little information has been available about the long-term effect from the early years of life.
To her knowledge, she said her study is the first to look at the effect of early exposure to domestic violence and its impact on the development of social behavior.
In the study, Holmes analyzed the behavior of 107 children exposed to interpersonal violence 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.
Those studied were from the National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-Being (NSCAW), which included children reported to Child Protective Services for abuse or neglect. The children’s behavior was followed four times over the course of five years.
Holmes’s research, published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, examined the timing, duration and nature of their exposure to violence and how it affected aggressive behavior.
Holmes found 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 such violence was witnessed, the more aggressive the behaviors became.
Meanwhile, children never exposed to interpersonal violence gradually decreased in aggression.
Learning that observing violence can have a 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.
Experts recommend play therapy and art therapy to help children work through the violence they were exposed to.
Holmes said her overarching goal is to contribute to optimal development of children who have been exposed to interpersonal violence “by identifying risk and protective factors that will be translated into interventions,” she said.
Source: Case Western Reserve