Children and community violence

November 14, 2000

Mary Ann Travis

Children hear gunshots blasting in the night, witness fights in their neighborhood and see dead bodies lying in sidewalks on their way to school. Harrowing experiences like these are commonplace for some New Orleans children, according to research by assistant professor of psychology Stacy Overstreet.

Predictably, many of these children experience psychological distress from this exposure to community violence. Yet, on the other hand, other children who observe the same violent and shocking events in the same neighborhood appear to cope well and show no outward, clinical signs of distress. These apparently unscathed children also especially intrigue Overstreet.

Overstreet began her investigation of the effects of exposure to community violence at the behest of community leaders at the C.J. Peete Housing Development. As part of the Tulane-Xavier Campus Affiliates Program, Overstreet listened to parents and teachers concerns about violence in the neighborhood. People needed some answers, she says.

Overstreet found that 92 percent of a group of 75 students, 10 to 15-years old, who attended Woodson Middle School Summer Camp on Tulane's campus in 1997 had heard guns fired in their neighborhood. The startling findings go on: 83 percent knew someone who had been killed through violence, 55 percent had witnessed a shooting, 43 percent had seen a dead body in the neighborhood, 37 percent had been a victim of physical violence themselves, and 10 percent of these children had been threatened with murder.

In response to their extensive contact with a violent world, one-third of the children developed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, says Overstreet. Post-traumatic stress disorder may follow exposure to events involving actual or threatened death or serious injury to the physical integrity of self or others, according to the American Psychiatric Association.

Its symptoms fall into three clusters, says Overstreet. One cluster is re-experiencing the trauma. Kids may have nightmares. Their play also may become preoccupied with violent themes. Another cluster of symptoms has to do with avoidance of things that remind you of the trauma.

You may not want to go out because bad things happen out there. You dont want to deal with the grief or loss or fear. Your range of effect becomes very limited. The third cluster of symptoms is hyper-arousal. You might become hyper-vigilant because you are always worried that something is going to happen, says Overstreet. Sleeping problems ensue, along with difficulty in concentrating.

In her investigations, Overstreet has documented all these troubles and more, including depression. And she's expanded her research to examine what factors might mitigate the problems and foster the children's resilience. Having a mother in the home or being raised with a number of brothers and sisters does assuage depression, Overstreet says. She surmises that this could be because it's comforting for children to know other family members are nearby.

Having a mother and siblings around, however, does not alleviate the more severe symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. To effectively ease these symptoms, Overstreet concludes, children need specific and formal ways to psychologically process the trauma and what they are feeling. Exposure to community violence has a slew of negative effects on a family, Overstreet says.

Family conflict increases because parents feel helpless to protect their children. Children's concerns about their safety and the dangers in their neighborhood cause anxiety. And the academic functioning of children in such circumstances falters. The problems students report in Overstreets findings are widespread. The rates of exposure to community violence published by Overstreet in several journals, including the Journal of Child and Family Studies, are consistent with other studies about the violence experienced by children in other impoverished urban areas around the country.

In the future, Overstreet will direct her inquiry to those children who appear desensitized to violence. Some people have argued that when you become numb or desensitized, its a protective factor because you can get on with life. You're not letting this get to you. Overstreet suspects, though, that desensitization, while protective in the short run, could lead to increased aggressive behavior later.

From all her work, Overstreet sees hopeful signs. She points out that 70 percent of the children from whom she gathered data reported no severe ill psychological effects from their exposure to violence. Certainly, the degree of exposure to community violence is shocking, says Overstreet. But what's just as amazing is the number of kids who are actually living in such a high-risk environment and doing just fine. The fact that such a large percentage of kids could be doing well growing up in such a challenging environment is inspiring.

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000