7 Ways to Curb Kids' Exposure to Violence

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by: Erin Dower
Did you know that U.S. children are more likely to be exposed to violence than adults? According to the U.S. Department of Justice, most American children are regularly exposed to violence — in the media, at home, in school, and in their community — and incidents of violence can affect them throughout their lifetime. Limiting kids' exposure to violence can help reduce the risk of overall violent behavior in children — from bullying and gang violence to school shootings and self-harm — as well as the risk of depression, anxiety, and other mental-health effects of violence.
boy playing video game alone
Limit Violent Video Games and Media
A 2002 study found that 21st-century children spend an average of 53 hours a week with media and technology — more time than they spend on any other single activity: school, family, sports, and sleep.

The AAP advises limiting children's TV and entertainment screen time to two hours or less per day (one hour or less per day for video game playing), and to educational, nonviolent content. Know the ratings of the TV shows and movies your children watch before they're allowed to tune in, and pay attention to the type of media you're taking in while your kids are around. The AAP also encourages parents to look into a video game's rating and content before allowing a child to buy or download it. Every week, violent video games and online games/apps hit the market and become top-sellers. The AAP notes that parents should encourage play of nonviolent games that involve multiple players. "A typical scenario pits our young hero against a horde of hostile foes," the AAP says. "Too much time spent absorbed in violent fantasy may foster social isolation."

Consider using your TV's and electronic device's parental controls and time-limit settings to help you keep tabs on your child's media and tech use. Also, check out sites like Common Sense Media for reviews and age ratings of various media for kids.

children playing with water guns
Think Twice About Toy Guns (and Real Guns)
The AAP advises parents to think twice before allowing their child to play with toy guns. Toy guns that fire projectiles can injure kids, typically in the face or eyes, and can pique kids' curiosity about real guns and make them seem harmless to kids. There are tons of fun non-violent toys and active play games to choose from for boys and girls.

The AAP also encourages parents to keep real firearms out of the home or safely locked away, out of sight from kids. Homicide is the second-leading cause of death among people ages 15 through 24 in the U.S. "The absence of guns from children's homes and communities is the most reliable and effective measure to prevent firearm-related injuries in children and adolescents," according to an AAP policy statement. "Safe gun storage (guns unloaded and locked, ammunition locked separately) reduces children's risk of injury." The AAP also notes that teen suicide risk is strongly associated with the availability of a firearm. If your child has shown signs of depression or violent behavior, it is especially important to prevent access to firearms.

The AAP supports the ASK (Asking Save Kids) Campaign, which urges parents to ask "Is there a gun where my child plays?" About 40 percent of U.S. homes with children have guns, many left unlocked or loaded — and several hundred children are killed or seriously injured each year as a result.

upset bullying victim
Address All Sides of Bullying
A U.S. Justice Department report on children's exposure to violence found that more than one in five children say they have been physically bullied, and more than three in 10 children say they have been teased or emotionally bullied. Boys are more likely than girls to be physically bullied or threatened, but girls are more likely to be cyberbullied, the report says.

Children who are bullied may be at higher risk for depression and suicidal thoughts, and those who witness it may feel fear and insecurity about going to school. In rare cases, bullying can lead to the victim making bomb or shooting threats against their school. Children who bully others may be more likely to get into frequent fights, and carry a weapon.

Encourage your child to pledge to take action against bullying. Familiarize yourself with the signs of bullying and the new social media apps kids are using for cyberbullying. If your child is bullied, seek mental health support for him and work with his school to address the incident immediately. If possible, encourage your child's school to have remediation support or counseling (not only punishment guidelines) for children who bully, which can help address the causes of their behavior and risk for recurrence.

child domestic violence victim
Remove Kids from Violence at Home
Exposure to physical or sexual abuse is a serious risk factor for violence in children, according to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. If you or your child have been victims of or witnesses to domestic violence, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Learn about the warning signs and definition of abuse — it goes beyond physical harm and can include verbal threats, emotional abuse, sexual coercion, and controlling behavior.

The sooner you can plan your "path to safety" and end your child's exposure to abuse, the safer she will be and the better the chance to help prevent her from becoming violent someday.

"Tell your children that violence is never right, even when someone they love is being violent," the NDVH advises. "Tell them that neither you, nor they, are at fault or are the cause of the violence, and that when anyone is being violent, it is important to stay safe."

parents fighting in front of kids
Choose Your Words and Discipline Methods Carefully
Keep in mind that your children are observing everything at home, so resolve disagreements peacefully and use discipline methods carefully. Model "the golden rule" with your spouse so that your kids learn about good behavior and communication. Try to use positive reinforcement when your child behaves well, and learn how to effectively use punishments. Keep in mind that spanking is a bad idea. It teaches your child that violence is a solution to conflict, and the AAP strongly opposes it.

In addition to spousal and parent-child conflicts, sibling conflicts are very common. Sibling aggression is normal, but parents should try to step in before sibling fights turn physical and find healthy ways to address siblings who hit and fight physically.

family playing outdoor game
Encourage Non-Violent Hobbies and Quality Family Time
Studies have shown that regular exercise can reduce the risk for depression and stress. A 2008 Columbia University study found that physical activity may help decrease violent behavior in some teens. So try to get kids involved in a non-violent hobby or minimal-contact sport, such as baseball, softball, tennis, gymnastics, swimming, or track and field. Try these 8 fun (and cheap!) family fitness activities at home and organize neighborhood games that get kids together outdoors.

Spending time together as a family can boost kids' self-esteem and help you stay in tune with your child's mental health. Try to have media-free family meals at least a few times a week, and ask questions that will get kids talking.

Encourage both girls and boys to express their emotions in a healthy way from a young age. Talk with your children about their exposure to violence — whether they have witnessed bullying in school or seen firearms or violent TV shows at friends' homes — and their questions or thoughts about it. You may be surprised to learn that some children (even ones with minimal exposure to violence at home) think the solution to being bullied is to fight back physically, or think that violence in the media is "cool."

angry boy
Take Kids' Violent Behavior Seriously
The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) says that violent or aggressive behavior can begin as early as preschool. Adults may shrug it off as the child "just being a kid," but some violent behavior in children and teens should raise a red flag, including: explosive temper tantrums, physical aggression, fighting, threats or attempts to hurt others (including homicidal thoughts), use of weapons, cruelty toward animals, fire-setting, intentional destruction of property, and vandalism.

"Parents and teachers should be careful not to minimize these behaviors in children," the AACAP says. Kids may not "grow out of it." Adults should speak up if their child is a victim of such behavior, and seek professional mental health treatment if their own child has intense and frequent outbursts or other "red flag" behaviors — especially if they overlap with other risk factors for violence, such as: a family history of violence, exposure to violence in the media or community, presence of firearms in the home, personal use of drugs or alcohol, family stress (divorce, physical/sexual abuse, or parent's substance abuse), or socioeconomic issues (poverty or parent's unemployment). The earlier a child gets treatment — with continued follow-up care — the better the chance of reducing the impact of these factors for violence.

In addition to help that may be available through your child's school, there are many additional resources for families dealing with children who are violent or at-risk for becoming violent: