Several things determine how well a child is able to cope with violence:
A) A child’s proximity to the event
The closer a child is to a violent event and/or those impacted by it, the greater their distress will be. For example, studies of the 1984 sniper shooting at an elementary school in Los Angeles initially caused widespread PTSD symptoms, but by 14 months later, a study determined that only the group of kids who were on the playground where the shooting took place remained distressed. The same proximity-related long-term impact was found in a study of the 1998 Thurston High School shooting in Oregon. (Siegel, 2012)
On the whole, human beings tend to place greater significance on events that are close to them versus those that are farther away, and a child’s proximity to the event also impacts their sensory experience. A child who hears the deafening gunshots, feels the whiz of bullets going by, and then takes cover underneath a bloody classmate who has been shot is going to have a much richer sensory experience that leads to a more powerful memory of the event compared to a child who heard strange noises while sitting in a classroom on the other side of the school. These sensory memories are also what fuel symptoms and triggers associated with PTSD. So the closer a child’s proximity, the more intense the experience, and the more intense the experience, the more difficult it will be to recover from.
B) Relationship to the victim and/or perpetrator
Children struggle the most when the violence involves someone close to them, either as victim or perpetrator. In fact, it’s been found that family victimization, whether it was witnessed or not, was as strongly correlated with psychological distress in children as was personal victimization. (Jenkins & Bell, 1994) Children are likely to show the strongest negative reactions when violence involves a parent or caregiver. (Osofsky et al., 1995) Infants and young children who witness violence or a threat of violence against their caregivers meet the diagnosis of PTSD significantly more often than children whose trauma does not involve witnessing threats against their caregivers. (Scheeringa & Zeanah, 1995)
In the eyes of children, their parents and/or primary caretakers are as important as life itself. The child depends on them for love, nurturing, guidance, and everything else needed for survival. So there’s very little (if any) difference in the distress caused by an attack against a child versus an attack against those adults the child depends on. In historical terms, the demise of a parent often meant certain death for the child, and so their brains are wired in a way that takes these threats very seriously.
When the perpetrator of violence is a parent or loved one, this brings up its own set of issues. For one, a child doesn’t suddenly stop loving, needing, or seeking the approval of a violent parent just because he or she acts aggressively. If there was any type of attachment to this person beforehand, it is likely to continue. The child craves love and connection with the perpetrator, even as their violent, uncontrollable outbursts continue to scare and terrify them. A child’s identification with the violent parent can trouble their psychology, creating an internal conflict and sometimes resulting in a child mimicking a parent’s aggressive patterns.
Suffice it to say that when violence involves someone within the family, children lose out every time.
C) A child’s memory of a violent event
How much a child perceives or remembers a violent experience affects the presence or absence of symptoms and the circumstances under which they are likely to occur. (Drell, Siegel & Gaensbauer, 1993)
It’s especially common in cases of domestic violence for parents to vastly underestimate a child’s exposure. Kids tend to lurk in the shadows, intentionally concealing themselves while watching what is going on. It’s been noted that children who live in families where violence has occurred can often give detailed accounts of events that their parents assumed went unnoticed. (Jaffe et al., 1990; Rosenberg, 1987)
D) The availability of parents and the responses by others
A child’s fate often hinges upon how others around him react to this event, Most children are able to cope with dangerous environments and display resiliency so long as their parents are not stressed beyond their capacity to cope. (Osofsky & Fenichel, 1994; Garbarino, 1992) Unfortunately, exposure to chronic violence also affects parents, and this tends to alter the interactions they have with their children. (Fick, Osofsky & Lewis, 1997)