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Journal Issue: Domestic Violence and Children Volume 9 Number 3 Winter 1999

The Impact of Violence on Children
Joy D. Osofsky


Existing research on the effects of children's exposure to violence covers a broad range of community, family, and media violence. This research is relevant and useful to an examination of domestic violence in two key ways. First, understanding how exposure to various types of violence affects children and what best enables them to cope can point to important considerations when trying to help children cope with exposure to domestic violence in particular. And second, many families experiencing domestic violence are exposed to other types of violence as well. Exposure to violence on multiple levels can affect the parents' behavior and can compound the effects on children.

This article begins with an overview of the extent of children's exposure to various types of violence, and then examines what is known about the effects of this exposure across the developmental continuum. Key protective factors for children exposed to violence are examined. Research indicates that the most important resource protecting children from the negative effects of exposure to violence is a strong relationship with a competent, caring, positive adult, most often a parent. Yet, when parents are themselves witnesses to or victims of violence, they may have difficulty fulfilling this role. In the final section, directions for future research are discussed.

Increasingly over the past decade, violence in the United States has been characterized as a "public health epidemic."1 Children are exposed to violence in their communities, in their families, and in the media. According to the National Summary of Injury Mortality Data, the homicide rate among young people ages 15 to 24 has more than doubled since 1950, up to a rate of 37 homicides per 100,000 in 1991.2 Despite the recent declines in crime rates, the homicide rate among males 15 to 24 years old in the United States is 10 times higher than in Canada, 15 times higher than in Australia, and 28 times higher than in France or in Germany.3 Only in some developing countries in South America such as Colombia and Brazil, and in actual war zones, is there a higher homicide rate among young males than in the United States. Violent behavior, including physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, also occurs frequently within U.S. families. In some areas, more than half of the calls for police assistance are for domestic disturbances.4 Finally, the content of American media is the most violent in the world.5 Both real and manufactured images of violence bombard youths through television, the cinema, and the Internet.