June 8, 2018

Our Works of Charity / David Bethuram

Violence in today’s society leaves its mark on our children in many ways

David BethuramViolence takes a direct toll on the physical, mental and emotional health of its victims, but none more so than children. Children who live in poverty are more likely to be exposed to violence, and are more likely to suffer from attachment problems, regressive behavior, anxiety and depression, and to have aggression and conduct problems.

Violence leaves no aspect of a child’s life untouched and robs them of normal development and future opportunities. Any violent incident is a potentially traumatic event, which involves directly experiencing or being threatened with physical or psychological harm, or witnessing others being harmed.

Children who feel the effects of violence often manifest negative consequences throughout their lives. The type of violence children are exposed to increases in severity with age. According to a study called “Children’s Exposure to Violence,” which was featured in the

May 2016 issue of Child’s Trends, for children ages 6-9 the most common exposure was injury or assault without a weapon or injury, and the most common perpetrator of assault was a sibling.

More serious types of assaults, including those involving a weapon or injury, were most common among 10 to 13 year olds.

All other forms of violence, including dating violence, attempted rape or sexual harassment, and physical or emotional abuse, were most common among the oldest youths, ages 14-17. That said, even community violence that children do not directly witness has been shown to negatively impact their attentional abilities and cognitive performance.

A study in the American Journal of Public Health indicates that while violence is certainly not limited to communities and persons in poverty, there exists a very clear and unfortunate correlation between the instability and despair of poverty, and the desperation of violence.

In children and youths, violence is linked to impaired school performance and judgment, vulnerability and high risk for substance abuse, victimization and emotional struggles. Youths with exposure to violence are unable to focus, learn and develop in the same manner as their peers.

Being exposed to violence as a stressor has been linked to chronic conditions like heart disease, cancer, asthma and stroke. Exposure is also tied to mental health problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression.

Violence is linked to involvement with the youth justice system. Multiple studies have found that justice-involved youths have experienced significantly higher rates of trauma than youths not involved in the justice system, with an estimated 70-96 percent of justice-involved youths having experienced at least one traumatic event.

To start to prevent violence, its many causes must first be addressed. Very often, these causes mirror the root causes of poverty. There is no one solution to ending either violence or poverty, but a viable plan would simultaneously consider both issues while pursuing enhanced quality and dignity of life for persons and communities.

Initial interventions may include services for mental and emotional health, trauma responsive services, domestic violence, substance abuse, gang activity, employment and homelessness, along with the confounding layers of other issues. For children, the earlier the intervention, the more likely the chance for success.

This is why Catholic Charites provides services in reducing children’s exposure to violence, such as home visiting for first-time mothers, family support services to reduce the incidence of child abuse and neglect, afterschool programs and summer camps that have proven to be effective in preventing or reducing violence among school-aged youths, and mental health services that treat children who have been exposed to violence.

We want our children to feel loved and be loved, reducing the amount of anxiety and fear they have in their lives. Please join us in helping our children.

(David Bethuram is executive director of the archdiocesan Secretariat for Catholic Charities. E-mail him at dbethuram@archindy.org.)

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