June 14th, 2010
03:01 PM ET

Violence weighs heavy on a child's mind

By Stephanie Smith
CNN Medical Producer

Being around violence is stressful, no doubt, but  it turns out that exposure to homicide may be causing cognitive problems in children, according to a new study.   What is striking: Children who are not directly witnessing the violence, but who live near it, may also be affected.

"Local violence weighs on the minds of children...," according to the study, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "The pattern of findings is consistent with the literature on acute stress disorder, which is defined as a response to a threatening event that induces fear, helplessness, or horror."

Patrick Sharkey, an assistant professor of sociology at New York University, analyzed reading and language assessments of children living in Chicago neighborhoods known for their high homicide rates  from 1995 to 2002. Some of the children (who were already being assessed, independent of Sharkey's study) were tested just after a violent homicide had occurred in the neighborhood, while others were tested during lulls in violence.

The children tested during violent periods scored worse in reading, writing and thinking ability.

"In most violent neighborhoods in Chicago, some kids are exposed to an average of one homicide a month," said Sharkey. "If we take these impacts at face value, kids living in the most violent neighborhoods are functioning at a low level for about a week each month due to violence."

That adds up to potentially three months each year of impaired thinking ability.

While children who directly witnessed a homicide were apt to have more cognitive problems than children who were farther away, Sharkey is quick to add that even children residing some distance from a homicide exhibited cognitive problems.

"The study says that when children are exposed to violence, their brains become distorted and that's probably correct," said Dr. Carl Bell, president of the Community Mental Health Council in Chicago and an expert on traumatic stress caused by violence. "Trauma messes up how the central nervous system functions. It creates hormones that are released and they can't learn as well."

But Bell emphasizes that the take-home message from a study like this is bolstering children's sense that they are protected. That means stronger social support networks for kids; teaching them social and emotional skills; giving children a sense of power as a means of withstanding their exposure to violence.

"Even if you have brain dysfunction, if you have these protective factors, you're more able to work around it," said Bell.

What may help children work around violence is the study's finding that the effect of the violence appears to be transient. Cognitive performance for a child seems to be restored about a week after the homicide, but what the study cannot explain, is how those horrifying images may translate over the long term.

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.

soundoff (36 Responses)
  1. EbonyRose

    I hope a lot of money was not wasted to come to this "Duh" conclusion. I know high school kids that could have told us the same thing without having to think too hard about it.

    June 14, 2010 at 18:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Kala

    Well tell that to Congressman Bob Etheridge as he slaps around a college kid.

    June 14, 2010 at 22:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. ChildRescueBill.org

    Child trauma is the root cause to chaos in society. The US spends over $200 Billion a year in direct and indirect costs. Not only dies this cost us $$$, it effects our personal safety.

    June 14, 2010 at 23:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Bonnie

    Think about the violence inside the home where most children are first exposed to it. A constant exposure to violence in any form cannot be good for the human being. We are gregarious and social. Violence in our environment engenders free-floating fear all around us, and the hormones of fear damage the growing brain. It's not rocket science...

    June 15, 2010 at 00:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. dave

    This is why some are for gun control and some are not. You have different worlds in this big country. I hope we can work together for a better tomorrow through understanding.

    June 15, 2010 at 00:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Martin

    So I wonder how many millions of pork barrel spending were given to the perpurtrators of this study for an obvious scientific conclusion that any parent could have told them.

    I'm sick and tired of seeing these ridiculous studies into patently obvious items – it's time that Americans learnt that when your Government is broke, its studies like these that should be the first to go.

    Next they'll be doing a study to find out if people are fed up with these studies .....

    Cut all funding for stuff like this NOW! IMMEDIATELY !

    June 15, 2010 at 00:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Reba

    So exposure to violence is bad for kids? Makes them afraid and perform poorly on tests?
    Who woulda thunk it?
    You'd think watching murder and crime on TV and/or real life would "toughen" kids up. We don't want wimpy sheltered American kids.
    But maybe kids who grow up in stable secure homes where no one is violent or murdering people will create healthier more stable kids and adults who aren't violent to others and don't murder people.

    Huh. Next we'll hear that it is better to eat vegetables than cookies.

    June 15, 2010 at 00:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. navymom

    Another argument against 'merit pay' for teachers working at inner city schools.

    June 15, 2010 at 00:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Brad

    I think the study has value - It dispels the view that living in a violent community is not damaging to those not directly impacted by the violence - in other words, violence victimizes everyone even those whom it is not perpetrated against.

    Therefore if you live in a violent community such as those in many American cities you are putting the intellect, the mental functioning of your children at risk.

    Therefore, if you are intelligent you will either make the violence in your community stop or you will leave.

    This is why violence tends to be concentrated - when a community tolerates violence smart people leave - the kids in the schools under the conditions detailed in the study don't learn well and are prone to behavior issues which are often violent which spreads the negative impact of the original act exponentially. This seems to be valuable knowledge.

    If it could be categorized under the heading of “duh” then why do people tolerate violence in their communities? Obviously they don’t think it’s that bad or they would do something about it.

    Or perhaps their brains aren’t functioning properly because of it. Either way the study shines light on something that needs to be talked about.

    Some will say violence is inherent to human nature – others like me will say that “man’s inhumanity to man” is caused by the violence we experience and violence should therefore be eradicated so it’s potential for exponential growth is truncated or eliminated.

    One teacher said: “Love your brothers as I have loved you – Forgive your brothers as I have forgiven you.”

    What would the outcome be if everyone understood the wisdom of those two simple sentences? This study points out that the outcome would be other worldly – but I digress In any case is this soimething we should strive for, or is this something we should ignore and therefore just accept the violence? What do you think?

    June 15, 2010 at 00:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. aersixb9

    I think learning real information about violence as well as allowing children to practice normal childlike sparring behavior around violence induces a rational sense of the pain and responsibility that comes around physical harm, both from one person inflicting it upon another as well as from environmental hazards.

    Censoring all violence from children doesn't really hide it completely from them. All they know about violence is that it's "adult" or "r-rated", and thus instead of seeing it as something painful or horrible, they see it as something they can aspire to, that they will be able to do when they are adults, or possibly sooner since kids are perfectly capable of violence, as well as many other things.

    June 15, 2010 at 01:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Kam

    @ Ebony Rose Yes but anecdotal evidence is not scientific evidence. "Because I said so" does not hold up in the scientific field. Furthermore, anecdotal evidence probably would not have been able to capture how exactly the trauma affects children, since children often cannot articulate what is happening to them. (And in general we are not aware of the processes occurring in our brain. ) That is why a scientific study is needed.

    June 15, 2010 at 01:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Ginger Grant

    I am curious whether or not violence and/or trauma effects adults, as well..... I am guessing it must as in PTSD. Just a thought.....

    June 15, 2010 at 01:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Ginger Grant

    Well, of course it effects adults....what I meant to say/ask is how long an adults thinking and learning might be different and how their central nervous system is affected?

    June 15, 2010 at 01:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. sharon s

    many times we need studies to support things we may already know. Knowing it and proviing it are too different things. Without proof, you cant get money to fix a "problem".

    June 15, 2010 at 02:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Jean V

    This is important information for everyone concerned about children who experience violence IN THE HOME, not just in the neighborhood. My grades dropped like a rock the year my father became violent (e.g. breaking my mother's arm) and finally moved out of the house.

    I went back as an adult and got my report card and I could see the effects of the violence on me right there, in black and white. Several years of A's and B's went to C's and D's overnight.

    Parents need to learn to find PEACEFUL ways to resolve their conflicts or their children will bear the brunt of it.

    June 15, 2010 at 05:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Glen Mayne

    They don't have impaired cognitive ability. They just don't want to waste time with nonsense like tests measuring their cognitive ability. When people are getting murdered there are more important things to worry about than reading and writing.

    June 15, 2010 at 07:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Liz Wilson

    Children are exposed to homicide through graphic realistic movies and television on a regular basis unless there is a significant effort on behalf of parents to filter this form of entertainment. Many children have difficulty sleeping and concentrating due, in part, to violence as entertainment. If we want children to succeed we, as a society, need to place their needs ahead of our own.

    June 15, 2010 at 07:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. J Mondot

    Experiencing and witnessing violence not only affected my childhood, it reduced my ability to handle stress and impaired my thinking throughout my life. I wish parents would realize how destructive their violent fights are to their children and save their children a lifetime of PTSD.

    June 15, 2010 at 07:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Maureen

    It isn't just children.

    June 15, 2010 at 07:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Sue

    I do agree with cognitive performance and being traumatized. I have not witness any murders however, I grew up with a suicidal alcoholic father and a mother that is addicted to television, a hermit and numb to the world. I basically had to be the parent at the age of 8. I always in school kept thinking about death. I could not concentrate and I dropped out of school to take care of them. Now I am 30 something, not married and no children. I still live with my parents. My father and mother call me a loser. I cry because I don't know why they don't understand the mind and the person they have ruined and the trauma they have caused me... I used to be a good girl focused and wanted to live life... Now I am just waiting to go away..

    June 15, 2010 at 07:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. James Hawk III

    Get people out of these crowded cities and into communities with lower population densities. In general our largest cities are toxic both physically and mentally. Why would anyone want to remain in them?

    June 15, 2010 at 07:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. Xavier

    EbonyRose: Completely agree. I come across these studies often. Funny thing, I am one of these kids (grew up in Harlem in 80's) and I am at least able to think well enough to come up with this on my own.

    June 15, 2010 at 08:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. Patricia Lewis

    I think you would be shocked at how many people argue and fight in front of their kids because they don't know this. Thanks Dr. Gupta

    June 15, 2010 at 08:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. Rozz

    I was "spanked" and disciplined regularly as a child for everything under the sun – and at 16, had all my hair cut off (it was waist length) before I was beaten naked with a bullwhip after my diary was read for calling my house f****** up. No one helped and no one cared what it did to me mentally. I was told I deserved it. Al-Anon and a great shrink are helping me finally free myself from a lifetime of dealing with what was done to me by my adopted parents. My horror is equal to this – and you better believe it makes our brains frazzle. Adult violence in all forms has effects far reaching and extreme. As a historian, I can tell you that you don't need a recent study to prove this. Look to Stalin, Hitler and thousands of other persons of the past that violence claimed to repeat its evil.

    June 15, 2010 at 08:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. Lauren C

    I'm glad they have studies about this going on no matter how much it cost, because now we have proof of the neurological effects of violence and trauma in a child's life. Yes, it seems like the obvious answer, but I wouldn't want a child's possible learning disability based on an assumption. The more we as a society know about the long term effects, the better care our children can receive when exposed to violence in their lives and neighborhoods.

    June 15, 2010 at 08:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. Jeff

    Instead of sheltering them even further, let them experience the "real world" a little at a time. Teach them that violence will never go away as it's a part of life. I mean if somebody pulls a gun on you and demands your wallet, sometimes being passive doesn't work. In other words, don't look like an easy target. Especially if you have the means to defend yourself.

    Yes violence is bad. But it is an important part of life. My grandad (who raised me) was a War Vet. At first he craved violence (he had told me) and by the time he saw what war was first-hand, he despised it. Still does but he said he understood that without war, there can not be peace. And without peace, there can not be war.

    Violence will NEVER go away. No matter how hard we try. So we shelter our children in hopes they will never experience it. LET THEM. That way they can grow to hate it. Just small dosages at a time.

    June 15, 2010 at 10:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. Jeff

    In addition, the worst thing we can do is shelter our kids. While it may look good at first, they'll get a "shock to the system" when they're forced to witness someone get shot or see a riot break out on the news. Show kids that violence is a part of life, in small dosages, probably won't have such a dramatic effect as stated in the article. It's a risk we have to take sooner or later. Personally, I'd rather it be sooner. By sheltering them, we're setting them up for failure.

    I'm not a doc or a genius. This is soley based on my own perspective.

    June 15, 2010 at 10:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. AverageJoe76

    It's unfortunate, but this justs highlights why kids surrounded by homicide have to be stronger and overcome the obstacles in front of them more than kids unaffected. A lot easier said than done, I know. But I refuse to give us another excuse to lag behind. I myself come from an inner-city neighborhood where homicide was an everyday to every-other-day occurence. Parents have to be stronger also and give the kids hope. What's sad is the cycle that's present where the parents are products of the same enviorment that is damaging the kids. We need more solutions to these problems. Although this article is informative, I don't want anyone latching on to this as a reason to give up the attemtp to break the cycle.

    June 15, 2010 at 10:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. ChildRescueBill.org

    What the article might be saying indirectly is that children who cope on their own are at the greatest risk. That makes sense.
    What people do not realize, many live in the suburbs, is the impact on children who are exposed to violence. Imagine a child who lives in the city and hears of a neighbor who is mugged, stabbed or whose house is broken into. What about children who hear of a shooting? What about the children who simply hear it from other children in the school?
    These children fear and it wouldn't be normal not to. Now consider this fear which WILL play a major role in distracting them from concentrating in school, vigilance is a form of survival. People might then begin to understand why city school children do not fair as well. These children, with minds that have yet to mature, learn to cope alone. These are all forms of trauma that effect children and we need responsible adults to teach proper coping skills. Doing so will cause a dramatic change in their general ability to achieving success.
    In the meanwhile, these children will find safety in those they fear most – the bad guy. After all, the bad guy has the power.

    June 15, 2010 at 11:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. AverageJoe76

    I agree with Jeff @ 10:02 to a degree. I do believe that if kids aren't as sheltered as we want them to be concerning violence, then MAYBE they'll be more likely to depise it. Seeing the results of violence (traumatic wounds, death, the pain of loved ones) may deter some, but may also desensitize others to violent acts. Jeff, I believe that idea could only work with kids that receive the kind of love and support they need everyday and therefore, violence is perceived as a horrible, last resort. And yes, with people, sometimes violence is nessessary. I wish it weren't true. But some people leave you with little options.

    June 15, 2010 at 11:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. jota aga

    If it seems obvious to many of you that exposure to violence would affect children's cognition, it should be equally obvious that No Child Left Behind, which requires schools to demonstrate a proscribed level of "progress" each year as measured by standardized test, is deeply flawed.
    I teach at two low-income elementary schools. There are few students who have not been touched by violence in their homes or neighborhood. One of my students was shot during a domestic violence dispute. NCLB assumes all schools and all kids are the same. Yes, they all have the same potential to learn. But too many kids walk into school exhausted from dealing with home issues. How can we then assume an equal playing field for students and a fair assessment of a school's efforts?

    June 15, 2010 at 11:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. Okla City

    "So I wonder how many millions of pork barrel spending were given to the perpurtrators of this study for an obvious scientific conclusion that any parent could have told them."

    Perhaps, Martin, these scientific studies provide the evidence necessary to provide funding for anti-violence programs directed at families and children. Not all money spent by the government should be considered wasteful. If said study was necessary for program funding and those programs reduced violent crime in the future, wouldn't we all be better off?

    I understand that everyone has varying beliefs on how government money should be spent; however, it would behoove those who are prone to spouting off conservative comments to take a deep breath, and see the big picture once in a while.

    June 15, 2010 at 11:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. Kraznodar

    The interesting part of this is that over the last 1,000 years the rate of homicides has dropped from around 32% to less than 1% globally. I don't recall if this includes wars or not. At the same time the rate of technological advancement has accelerated. I wonder if there is a connection.

    June 15, 2010 at 12:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. toughenup

    Life is not soft and gentle. Just look at nature as an example of violence all around us. Should we stop nature before she hurts someone? Good luck with that. Yes, we are impacted by all experience. Why? Because that's life. Deal with it. And teach your children to deal with it in a way that is nurturing and comforting. All things pass. Life experience should make you stronger and wiser not frightened and weak. "Get busy living or get busy dieing." You only go around once, folks.

    June 15, 2010 at 12:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. Jorge

    toughenup-I hope that line of thinking works for you when some neurotic 16 year old inner city dropout from the rough part of town pulls a piece on you for your jewelry and trash talks you while he decides if he wants to pop a cap in your *ss or not because you remind him of somebody he doesn't like. I hope you don't wet your panties, poser.

    June 15, 2010 at 13:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  36. Brad

    Being passive and working to end violence are two different things. Aggressiveness and violence are two different things. Aggressively working to end violence is inarguably a good thing to do, though of course it will take many lifetimes.

    Real violence and movie violence are two different things. Violent sports and violence against ones fellow people are two different things. Defending yourself against a violent act and perpetrating a violent act are two different thing.

    This study pretty much proves that real violence disrupts brain function in children. Look at the level of intellectual diversity exists in violent countries like Somalia – the people there TEND to be dumb as rocks. There is no intellectual development.

    The subtext of the problem with REAL violence is its exponential growth pattern. Disrupting this growth pattern will go a long way towards developing a society where physical violence is vastly reduced – this is not to say we develop a society of passive wimps. We develop a society where the intellect is lauded and where resorting to violence is seen as the weakness it truly is.

    June 16, 2010 at 01:33 | Report abuse | Reply

Post a comment


CNN welcomes a lively and courteous discussion as long as you follow the Rules of Conduct set forth in our Terms of Service. Comments are not pre-screened before they post. You agree that anything you post may be used, along with your name and profile picture, in accordance with our Privacy Policy and the license you have granted pursuant to our Terms of Service.

About this blog

Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.