Editor’s Note: Memphis has a serious problem: domestic violence. According to the nonprofit Operation Safe Community, an extension of the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission:
• More than 19,000 (31.9 percent) children under the age of 5 will potentially be exposed to domestic violence, including aggravated and simple assaults.
• Nearly 55,000 (31.9 percent) children aged 5 to 17 will potentially have exposure to domestic violence in our community.
Is it any wonder our city winds up with such a significant crime rate? Children who are routinely exposed to violence, or witness violence against those they love, can be left with psychological scars that last a lifetime.
The Urban Child Institute posted a research study on their website recently that I thought served as a good reminder to parents and families: that our actions have a significant impact on our children, regardless of their age.
Domestic violence can traumatize preschoolers
Every year, between 10 and 15 million children witness domestic violence. Seeing a mother or family member being physically or emotionally abused can have lifelong effects on a child’s cognitive, emotional, and social brain development. Research indicates adults who witnessed domestic violence growing up are more likely to have relationship difficulties and emotional problems.
Research associate Marc Goodman-Bryan, who examined the studies on domestic violence and children for the Urban Child Institute, says the big surprise in these findings was that, “there’s a general belief that older kids are more affected by seeing or hearing violent conflict then 3- or 4-year-olds, but that’s not true. Babies and toddlers can be as traumatized, if not more so, than older kids.”
In other words, violence witnessed by very young children can do harm.
What’s more, children younger than 6 are at higher risk than older children for directly witnessing domestic violence. Research indicates:
• Some effects can be seen as early as infancy: 1-year-olds who have been exposed to domestic violence are more aggravated than other babies when they hear adults arguing.
• Children under 3 who witness violence toward a family member are at increased risk for psychological problems.
• Cognitive development can also be affected: Children exposed to high levels of domestic violence in early childhood have IQs at age 5 that are up to 8 points lower than those of other children.
Witnessing abuse threatens brain development
Although there is little specific research on how witnessing domestic violence affects the developing brain, many studies show that stress and trauma in general can impair children’s brain development. Some studies have found that adults who experienced significant early life stress have differences in brain structure compared to people who experienced low levels of early stress.
Early stressful experiences, including exposure to violence, can influence an infant’s stress reactivity — the ability of her brain’s stress response system to turn on or off appropriately. This can have lifelong effects on psychological and physical health. Moreover, domestic violence can affect a child even before she is born. Domestic violence often begins or grows more intense during pregnancy, and the resulting maternal stress can interfere with fetal brain development. — Marc Goodman-Bryan, research associate with the Urban Child Institute. To learn more, go to urbanchildinstitute.org.
Are you in an abusive relationship? Get help at stopdvinmemphis.org .
Jane Schneider and the Urban Child Institute