Of all the things children can go through, witnessing or experiencing violence is usually the scariest. Children may react to such experiences in any number of ways:
Common reactions and symptoms among children exposed to violence
A) Some children may express disbelief that an event has occurred or deny its outcome. This is usually less about a lack of comprehension and more a defense mechanism. By pretending it never happened, you can avoid thinking about it.
B) Exposure to violence commonly evokes an intense longing for parents and concern for the safety of caregivers in children. They may ask where you’re going or worry about what you’re doing while away. Separation anxiety commonly emerges as a symptom of this.
C) They may get angry at or blame those not involved in the event. This often happens because it’s infeasible to get angry at those responsible, since children feel small and helpless against the perpetrators of violence.
D) Some children may appear to revel in the excitement of the event or approach it with a false bravado, talking with apparent indifference. Once again, this is typically a defense mechanism: Acting tough is a great way to push away anxieties about what happened. A child may also be legitimately enthralled at first, viewing all the excitement as if it were a movie. But once the initial action subsides, their reactions can be just as negative as other kids.
E) Children who are repeated victims and/or witnesses to violence may learn to interpret things such as accidental bumps as purposeful aggression. This is the result of their arousal system being primed for aggression, and it may carryover into behavioral problems. When a child is primed to see aggression in others, they’re more likely to exhibit aggression in return.
F) Children may develop concerns about body autonomy. As Marans & Adelman (1997, p. 209) explain, “young children who witness real-life damage to limbs, gunshots to the body, or bloody scenes of violence may worry profoundly about their own bodies being kept whole and kept together.”
G) It may trigger previous memories of loss, injuries or other violent episodes. A child may begin talking about these prior events.
H) Finally, exposure to violence can change the way a child views the world. Their beliefs about morality, safety and security, hopes for the future, and the general way in which they look upon others can be altered.
How a child’s reactions can vary by age
Preschool children are more likely to display passive reactions and regressive symptoms such as bed-wetting, regression in language, separation anxiety or a greater dependency on adults, or nightmares and sleep disturbances. (Pynoos & Eth, 1985; Pynoos & Nader, 1988; Osofsky, 1995) They are also more likely to reenact violent events through play.
School age children are more likely to experience psychosomatic symptoms and to exhibit school or learning difficulties. Older kids are also far more likely to react to violence in an aggressive way; entertaining revenge fantasies or directing this anger towards others.