Recognize the Signs
Symptoms of Witnessing Violence
Common Symptoms Seen in Children Who Have Witnessed Violence Include:
- Sleep difficulties: Frequent waking, nightmares, fear of falling asleep
Sally saw a downstairs neighbor threaten her mother with a knife when she was seven years old. For weeks afterwards, she would lay awake at night, listening for steps on the stairs, afraid he was coming back. She had a recurring dream that he was chasing her around the neighborhood, and she was looking for a place to hide.
- Somatic complaints: Headaches, stomach aches, aches and pains with no clear medical cause
Jose, eight years old, witnessed his mother’s abuse at the hands of his father for five years. After they separated, he reported that his stomach would hurt every time he thought about his father. He often went to the school nurse complaining of stomachaches.
- Increased aggressive behavior, angry outbursts
Marci, six years old, had lived with domestic violence all her life. She had trouble making friends at school because she would hit and kick when frustrated or disappointed. At home, she sometimes kicked her mother, and called her the same “bad words” her father used.
- Increased activity level
Terence, eleven years old, saw a murder in his neighborhood. In the following months, his teachers and parents noticed that he had trouble settling down to do his schoolwork, and was more active than usual.
- Hypervigilance: Worries, fears, overreaction to loud noises or sudden movements
Sarah, four years old, told her day care provider she wanted to go home early one day because she was worried about her mom: “My mommy will be hurt.” Her mother reported to the day care provider that she had been abused by a former girlfriend, who continued to stalk her and made many threats to kill her.
- Regression: Loss of skills learned at an earlier age, “babyish” behavior
Five year old Tommy, who had been toilet-trained by the age of three, started wetting his pants again after he saw his father mugged at gunpoint while waiting at a bus stop.
- Withdrawal: Loss of interest in friends, school, or other activities the child used to enjoy
Ebony, thirteen years old, used to enjoy going to the movies or the mall with her friends on weekends. She was also on her school’s gymnastics team. After she saw her older sister get beaten by a boyfriend, she quit the gymnastics team and started to stay home every weekend.
- Numbing: Showing no feelings at all, not bothered by anything Nine-year-old
Eric had seen a lot of violence in his family. His father would beat his mother, and sometimes hit Eric and his little sister as well. Eric’s teachers noticed that he seemed “shut down” emotionally. He never showed any anger or sadness, but he never seemed happy either.
- Increased separation anxiety: Refuses to go to school, very upset when left with babysitter or child care provider
Somnang was just ten months old when she saw her mother pushed down the stairs by a relative. For several weeks after the incident, Somnang would wail for long periods of time after her mother brought her to day care, even though she knew the providers and used to separate easily.
- Distractibility: Has trouble concentrating at school or home
At sixteen years old, Justin saw his friend beaten up by some other teenagers. Afterwards, he found it hard to concentrate on anything for very long, saying that memories of the fight would pop into his mind and distract him from what he was doing.
- Changes in play: Repeatedly acts out or recreates violent events in play, less able to play spontaneously and creatively
After her parents split up, Elva’s preschool teachers noticed that she was spending more and more time at the dollhouse. Each time, she used the father doll to hit the mother doll over and over again.