For years, research has found violence is learned behavior. The Howard University Violence Prevention Project (HUVPP) suggests children’s exposure to community violence can predict their social and emotional behavior, both in school and at home. In other words, the more elementary school children are exposed to community violence, the more likely they will have adjustment problems.
The research indicates violence is not a random, uncontrollable or inevitable occurrence. Instead, many factors–systemic, social, political and individual—contribute to an individual’s propensity to use violence, and many of these factors can be changed. An American Psychological Association study suggests youngsters who engage in violence tend to share common risk factors that place them on a trajectory towards violence early in life. In addition to actual physical victimization, these factors include witnessing violence at home and in the neighborhood.
The proliferation of community violence in many urban areas can be analyzed, and thus better understood in a socio-political context. Many theorists believe that rather than an individual focus, a social, economic and political analysis must lay the foundation for better understanding violence, particularly as it relates to inner-city Black and other children of color in this country. Violence is a predictable outgrowth of historical oppression and inequities among oppressed people, not unlike historical conditions that have fostered armed conflict around the world.
Earlier studies found that identifying resilience and protective factors may be the most useful in understanding both the impact of community violence on children living in highly violent communities and how to develop preventive interventions. Therefore, community violence can be considered a pervasive stressor imposed on an already existing, vulnerable population of children and families.
The salient question then becomes: What are the events, experiences, family processes and individual factors that have served in the past. and currently, to reduce the likelihood of children being adversely affected by this stressor?
Surveys have consistently found children are witnessing violence in their neighborhoods at alarming rates throughout the nation. Data from HUVPP indicate that 75% of the 4th through 6th graders interviewed reported they have witnessed some incident of community violence, including homicides, non-fatal shootings and physical assaults.
It has been long established that children who witness violence are at increased risk for later involvement themselves, both as perpetrators and victims. These children may experience psychological problems that impair their development in ways similar to those in children who have been physically abused.
In addition to mental health implications, constant exposure to violence has eclipsed the basic conditions necessary for overall healthy child development. In fact, for many children, living in the midst of traumatic environments, the challenge is to “re-invent childhood” so that they may carry out the basic developmental tasks that community violence inflicts on childhood development.
Obviously, there are multiple risks in the environments of children who live among chronic urban violence. These include poor schools, inadequate social services and high parental unemployment rates. It is not surprising that HUVPP found community violence is a major stressor in the environment of many children. It destabilizes the quality and sanctity of critical relationships necessary for children’s well-being and compromises basic developmental experiences.
The following are consequences-in addition to the racist systemic overlay-associated with children’s exposure to community violence: Erosion of a sense of personal safety and security; generalized emotional distress; de-personalization; disruption of a predictable lifestyle; a compromising of the ability (and/or desire) of major institutions in communities to socialize children; a decrease in a vision, or any ties to the future; the development of distrust in peer relationships; a development of fatalistic attitudes about protecting human life and an increase in the use of violence to solve inter-personal conflicts.
Many children who are regularly exposed to violence are still able to triumph over its enormous stress and grow into psychologically healthy individuals. Possible protective mechanisms that the Howard University Project identified in the lives of such children include: Eearly bonding with primary relationships that promoted social development; a consistent adult(s) who can buffer the impact of community violence; experiences that promote affective development; promotion of cultural awareness and positive cultural identity; a value system that clearly rejects violence; and specific experiences that promote areas of individual and group competence and bond individuals with positive social group activities. (All of the above factors pertain especially to African American children who are the most victimized.)
A variety of programs and strategies appear to hold promise for preventing youth involvement in violence and addressing the problems of victims. They include conflict resolution, mentoring, teaching social skills, community service, jobs, comprehensive after-school programs and counseling for victims and witnesses.
For children with multiple risk factors for involvement in violence, however, the more effective interventions are comprehensive and link the efforts in the schools to those of empowering, or potentially empowering, families and the business community, and to stronger community-police partnerships. Sadly, an overabundance of African American children in urban areas fall into the multiple-risk category. This underscores the need for the community itself to become more aware of children’s vulnerability to violence and to take a more active role in alleviating a problem that virtually denies countless children a full and productive life.