Prevalence And Psychological Consequences Of Exposure To Community Violence

Based on the community violence studies of the early 1990s, between 44-82% of school-aged children and youth are exposed to community violence, depending on definitional criteria, methodology, and sample characteristics (Overstreet, 2000; Stein, Jaycox, Kataoka, Rhodes, & Vestal, 2003). According to the early studies, by the end of elementary school, almost all children residing in high crime innercity areas of Washington and New Orleans had heard (98%) or witnessed (90%) moderate to severe levels of violent occurrences (Richters & Martinez, 1993; Osofsky, Wewers, Hann, & Fick, 1993). School-aged children exposed to community violence are at risk for an array of problematic behavior including: lower self-competence (Farver, Ghosh, & Garcia, 2000), high levels of distress (Martinez & Richters, 1993), depression (Durant, Getts, Cadenhead, Emans, & Woods, 1995), post-traumatic stress disorder (Fitzpatrick & Boldizar, 1993; Jaycox, Stein, Kataoka, Wong, Fink, Escudero, & Zaragoza, 2002), increased aggression (Gorman-Smith & Tolan, 1998), anxiety/depression (Cooley-Quille, Boyd, Frantz, & Walsh, 2001), and antisocial behavior (Miller, Wasserman, Neugebauer, GormanSmith, & Kamboukos, 1999). Exposure to acts of community violence is highly predictive of aggressive cognitions and behavior among younger (Grade 1-3) and older (Grade 4-5) children (Guerra, Huesmann, & Spindler, 2003). In addition, exposure to neighborhood and school danger contribute between 5-16% of the variance in the prediction of school attendance, behavior, and grades (Bowen & Bowen, 1999). Lynch and Cicchetti (1998; 2002) found that exposure to acts of community violence, via witnessing or direct victimization, was related to lowered self-esteem, higher levels of separation anxiety, and less secured feelings of relatedness with their caregivers. Researchers have also identified mediating and moderating influences in the linkage between exposure to community violence and child development involving child-, and family-level factors. For example, Colder and associates (Colder, Mott, Levy, & Flay, 2000), found that a child's positive beliefs about aggression mediated, in part, the relationship between perceived neighborhood danger and childhood aggression. Using a structural modeling methodology, in a study of 732 predominantly African American fifth graders, Colder found direct and indirect effects in that perceived neighborhood danger was associated with positive beliefs about aggression, which in turn was associated with child aggression. There are also moderating familial influences of the impact of community violence on child behavior. For example, Miller and colleagues (Miller et al., 1999) found that family conflict moderated the effect of witnessed community violence on changes in antisocial behavior among 6-10-year-old boys. She found that in families with low levels of parent-child conflict, higher levels of witnessing community violence predicted increases in antisocial behavior over time. Family cohesion is another important moderator in the linkage between exposure to community violence and child outcome. Plybon & Kliewer (2001) showed that high levels of family support ameliorated the effects of living in a violent neighborhood, and resulted in fewer externalizing behavior problems among 8-12-year-old children. Taken together, these findings suggest that the consequences of exposure to community violence among school-aged children are far-reaching and involve an array of psychological, social, and academic problems, but can be mediated or attenuated by factors such as child positive social cognitions about violence, low level of family conflict, and high family support.

Shifting the Focus to the Preschool Years

In the preschool years, between the ages of 3-5, young children venture into the public spheres of their neighborhoods by becoming engaged in various social activities outside of their homes. Preschool children may attend a playgroup or a preschool program, play in public playgrounds, stay outdoors for longer periods of time, and visit community areas often accompanied by their mother or an older sibling. As compared to toddlers, increased mobility and higher levels of cognitive competence (Cicchetti, 1989) may afford young children a greater exposure to social events in the neighborhood, and a greater ability to explore the outside world. It is through this normative socialization process that preschool children develop a capacity to form and maintain cognitive "social maps," a concept described by Garbarino (1999) as "representations of the world" which emerge to give meaning to the social and interpersonal environment of the child, e.g., what or who is dangerous, who to turn to for protection, or who to trust in unsafe circumstances. The types of social constructions (e.g., whether maps are benign or hostile) are shaped by the child's immediate social experiences.

Consistent with their experiential world, preschool children who witness or experience routine acts of violence in chronically dangerous neighborhoods (Taylor, Zuckerman, Harik, & Groves, 1994; Farver, Natera, & Frosch, 1999) are likely to form distorted social maps, reflecting an unpredictable, unsafe, or dangerous world. Although there is no empirical research on the emergence of social maps during the preschool years, the concept is consistent with a social cognitive perspective for the emergence of aggressive behavior. According to social information processing (SIP) theory (Dodge, Pettit, Bates, & Valente, 1995), children who are exposed to aggressive models learn to anticipate a hostile world around them because they have developed 'social maps' consistent with their experiences. When trauma-exposed children encounter an interpersonal transgression (i.e., a child bumping into somebody else in the hallway; a child taking the chair of another child in the lunchroom), in which the intent of the perpetrator is unclear (intentional vs. unintentional harm), victimized children are more likely to retaliate because they read in others an intention to harm, as compared to their non-victimized counterparts. The findings from SIP theory are consistent with Garbarino's notion that victimized children are at risk of creating a hostile cognitive social map of interpersonal relationships based on their prior violence-related experiences; these hostile social maps lead to distorted attributions under conditions of uncertainty; which eventually result in child's aggressive behavior. Most recently Guerra and colleagues (Guerra, Huesmann, & Spindler, 2003), provided support for the mediational role of aggressive social cognitions, over time, on the relation between community violence and subsequent aggression.

Although exposure to community violence has been known to have serious psychological and behavioral consequences for school-age children (Garbarino, Dubrow, Kostelny, & Pardo, 1992), only recently has attention shifted downward to the preschool years (Lynch, 2003). This historical omission has jeopardized our understanding of the conditions under which trauma-related exposure may first appear; the processes by which exposure produces developmental harm in some preschool children but not in others; and how the presence of individual, family, and contextual factors mediate exposure on the developing child. The handful of existing studies focusing on preschool children suggest that community violence exposure rates are close in proportion to that of school-age children, dissipating the notion that young children are protected from exposure due to their age. In one of the first studies with preschoolers, Taylor and colleagues (Taylor et al., 1994) interviewed 115 parents of 1- to 5-year-old children receiving pediatric care at Boston Medical Center. Mothers of these preschool children reported that 1 out of10 children had witnessed, by the time they were 6 years old, a knifing or a shooting; 18% had witnessed shoving, kicking, or punching; and 47% had heard gunshots. In this study, however, the distinction between types of child exposure, i.e., community versus family violence, was not made so that above exposure rates may reflect exposure to one or both types.

In a more recent study of 64 preschoolers attending a Head Start program in California, Farver et al. (1999) reported that at least 50% of mothers reported hearing gunshots in their homes, and more than 60% reported witnessing drug deals, and arrests. In this study though, the children's exposure to community violence was not assessed. Additionally, in a small sample of 31 Latina mothers and their children (ages 4-5) attending a Head Start program in Los Angeles, Aisenberg (2001) reported that 26% of children were direct victims of violence and 45% witnessed violence, in their lifetime. Based on maternal reports of children's exposure to community violence, 71% heard gunshots near the home and 32% witnessed a beating. Finally, Shahinfar and colleagues (Shahinfar, Fox & Leavitt, 2000) studied 155 parents and their preschool children attending a Head Start program near Washington, DC. Using a cartoon-based self-report assessment of exposure to violence (VEX scale; Fox & Leavitt, 1995), they found that 78% of children and 67% of parents reported children's exposure (witnessing or experiencing) to at least one incident of violence during the summer when the evaluation took place. In this study, once again, there was no distinction between type of exposure, with rates reflecting exposure to either community or family violence. Furthermore, results may be questionable given that 53% of the children did not complete the self-report VEX scale due to test comprehension problems or an unwillingness to respond. The difficulty in obtaining self-reports from the preschoolers themselves underscores the challenge of gathering reliable exposure ratings at this developmental period.

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