The Effects of Violence on Mental Health

Children who experience family, community, and media violence may display negative types of behavior. Head Start staff can develop policies and procedures to address the violence that interferes with children's development. To help children survive in a world where violence can exist, the staff and parents must work together to provide children with the emotional support and positive experiences they need to thrive.

The following is an excerpt from...
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by Terra Bonds

Family Violence
Community Violence
Media Violence
Behavioral Effects on the Child
Head Start Policies
Common Behavior Changes
September 11th, 2001
Solutions for Addressing Violence

Sometimes it seems that violence is accepted as just a fact of life in our communities. We see it reported on the daily news and glamorized in the media. Somehow we have learned to take it in stride. It seems the more violence that exists in our society, the higher our threshold for acceptance.

Working together in Head Start, we have the power and the obligation to heal the violence in our community if not for ourselves, then for our children. Witnessing violence and exposure to it can hurt all of us, especially our children, who are the most vulnerable.

Family Violence
Family violence or abuse, whether physical, emotional, or verbal, is the most direct form of violence that children experience. It usually has the most profound and lasting effect on their development. Children who witness parental violence are seriously affected because of their proximity, the directness of the experience, and the importance of the primary caregiving context. Children who are victims may be scarred for life with irreparable damage to their healthy self-identity and capacity for establishing trusting relationships. Very young children are the most vulnerable targets of violence in the home. More abuse and more fatal abuse occur to children in the first year of life than in any other 1-year period in their development. The risk of family violence is increased substantially when other risk factors such as emotionally abusive relationships, substance abuse, or stressors associated with poverty, are present in their lives.

Community Violence
Children are often indirectly exposed to violence in their communities. They may witness violent acts such as robberies, assaults, or shootings. Although infants are unable to process events outside of their immediate environment, they are tuned into the emotional responses of their caregivers. The very young child is primarily affected by the primary caretaker's response to the violence if it compromises the caregiver's ability to provide emotional consistency and protection to the child.

Older toddlers and preschoolers who have been witnesses to community violence are usually more aware of what has occurred and have a deeper understanding of what they have seen. They may show emotional distress as a result of witnessing the violence, as well as being affected by their caregiver's response.

Media Violence
Media violence is another form of indirect exposure. Some research has shown a relationship between children's aggressive behavior and viewing violent programming. Young viewers may experience desensitization or increased acceptance of violence as normal. They may evidence a "mean world syndrome," which is described as fearfulness that the everyday world is as dangerous as the television world (Murray 1997).

Although media violence has been found to affect children's behaviors, it is also important to take into account the amount of exposure to violent programming the child has had, the child's stage of development, and the way in which the media violence interacts with other family variables before determining the full impact on the child.

Behavioral Effects on the Child
Certain behavioral changes may be observed in children who have witnessed or been victims of violence (although some of the behaviors may also be in response to other "normal" developmental issues). If the child is exhibiting any of these behaviors in a sudden, intense, unrelenting fashion, gather as much information as possible about the child and his circumstances to determine the source of the behaviors and the best course of action. Your program's screening and ongoing assessments of children are important sources of information.

Head Start Policies
Suggestions for Head Start programs and staff to develop policies and procedures related to violence include:

  • Establishing procedures that will ensure the safety of children, parents, and staff who are faced with violent situations in the home, at the Head Start center, or out in the community (i.e., during home visits).

  • Developing a referral policy that includes the services of a mental health consultant who helps the staff assess and identify services for the child and family.

  • Exploring community resources that provide services for children and families who have been witnesses or victims of violence.

  • Collaborating with agencies that provide services or training to families and staff related to violence awareness, prevention, and intervention.

Many Head Start programs around the country already have structures in place to address children's and families' needs for mental health services related to violence. In cooperation with local and national agencies, Head Start staff and parents can plan and use appropriate strategies to address the violence that interferes with our children's optimal development. General suggestions for addressing violence include therapeutic interventions provided by mental health agencies and communication strategies for caregivers.

Common Behavior Changes
According to Honig (1993), children who have experienced violence may show its effects in any of the following ways:

  • Crying frequently or constantly

  • Wanting to be held constantly or stiffening when held

  • Exhibiting aggressive behavior (i.e., hitting, biting, or kicking

  • Sleeping irregularities (i.e., trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, nightmares)

  • Stuttering

  • Showing changes in developmental functioning (i.e., toileting practices)

  • Expressing fear or worry about being safe

  • Withdrawing from social interaction

  • Eating irregularities

  • Exhibiting psychosomatic symptoms (i.e., headaches, stomachaches)

  • Having lowered self-esteem

  • Having difficulty in paying attention
  • Being depressed

September 11th, 2001
While we deal with our own emotions about the tragedy of September 11th, we must be aware of the impression these events have had on the emotional development of the very youngest people in our country. Parents and educators, who are responsible for the health and well-being of children, must do everything possible to protect, reassure and restore a sense of security for our children.

Although young children's objective awareness of what has happened is very limited, they respond to the fear, pain, and tension of adults. Children will know if familiar adults are upset. Therefore, it is important that adults be aware of their own emotions and deal with them appropriately. Adults can discuss their feelings with children, but nevertheless, must model emotional strength and coping strategies. Caregivers must be careful to maintain close, loving, nurturing interactions with the child. They must also take care of their own mental wellness.

The recommendations on the pull-out can assist parents and caregivers with children (and other adults too) who were not directly affected by the World Trade Center or Pentagon bombings. Children who have lost loved ones in either of these tragic events may need to receive more intensive mental health assessment and services.

Childhood is associated with innocence, hope, and promise for the future. Children have the ability to stimulate protective urges in adults who are motivated to shelter them from the danger and damage that violence triggers. Let us all work together to help protect our children by providing them with the emotional support and positive experiences they need to thrive.

Honig, A.S. 1993. Mental health for babies: What do theory and research teach us? Young Children.

Murray, T. 1997. Media violence and youth. In Children in a violent society, ed. J. Osofsky. New York: Guildford Publications.

Terra Bonds was a 2000-2001 Head Start Fellow, E:


The mental health services will assist children in coping with violence in their community or in their homes. Suggestions to help children include:

  • Provide age-appropriate therapeutic services.
    In a safe environment, children who have been witnesses or victims can process their emotions and the events. Not all children develop overt symptoms associated with trauma. The specific kind of intervention needed depends on the form, level, and duration of exposure that the child has had. Interventions should begin as closely as possible to the traumatic event to decrease the long-term impact of the trauma.

  • Provide emotional support.
    This support should come from non-offending family members, caretakers, and teachers.

  • Encourage children to communicate.
    They need to talk about what happened and have their experience validated by a parent (non-offending adult), teacher, or mental health consultant. Younger children may express themselves primarily in their play or drawings.

  • Limit television viewing.
    The media can be a powerful tool for education, but only if it is used with close adult supervision. What children see becomes part of their inner world. Spend time talking or reading to the child.

  • Protect the child from exposure to violence.
    Whenever possible, eliminate physical confrontations or arguing in the presence of the child.

  • Give the child positive experiences and emotional support.
    For example, console when the child is upset, or give a hug for reassurance.

"The Effects of Violence on Mental Health."  Bonds, Terra. Child Mental Health. Head Start Bulletin #73. HHS/ACF/ACYF/HSB. 2002. English.

Last Reviewed: November 2008

Last Updated: October 1, 2014