Violence in Childhood

Violence exists in safe, loving homes, too.

Guest Post by Elisabeth Corey — get free updates of new posts here.

child's drawing - Portrait of a screaming womanLately, I have been inundated with stories of children exposed to violence and I am struggling to accept it. That statement might not sound surprising to most of my readers. After all, I am an advocate against child sex abuse and trafficking.

But this is different.

This is a subtle level of violence in childhood that has become an epidemic. It is not happening in abusive homes. It is not happening because parents are bad or do bad things. I believe it a lack of understanding about how children process violence. And this lack of understanding is feeding cultural norms that must change.

In the United States, our children are being exposed to violence every day. And they are confused by it. They watch it. They experience it. But they are told it is unacceptable to be violent. And they have no idea how to reconcile that. They can’t understand the dualistic messages. Here are some examples of confusing experiences for young children.

1) Children are exposed to violent movies, video games and news.

The rating system for movies is not reliable for parents of small children. While most parents know that rated R movies are not a good idea, they may not realize that PG-13 and PG movies may not be good choices either. There is violence and discriminatory messages in many PG movies that must be considered.

I have heard from others that they don’t see the problem. They tell me that children will have to see it eventually. Why should we encourage naiveté? But children make decisions so they can understand their experiences, but those decisions don’t necessarily make sense in the real world.

A young child does not process information like an adult, or even a teenager. A young child processes information in a black and white way.

So if they watch a violent movie where the good guy attacks the bad guy, a child may determine that violence is ok if the other person has done something wrong. As adults, there may even be cases where we agree with that sentiment. But what is the definition of “wrong”? Adults usually understand the ambiguity of words like “wrong”. Is it wrong to steal? Is it wrong to steal so you can feed your starving kids? You get the idea.

But a child may make their own decisions about what is right and wrong. They may decide that if they witness another child stealing something, it is ok to push them to the ground. They may feel completely justified because they are right and that other child is wrong. And in that case, the movie says violence is ok.

They may make a decision about who they can attack. Violence is often perpetrated against ethnic and racial minorities and women at a higher rate in movies. And it doesn’t matter if the character is good or bad. That character is more likely to be attacked or killed off. I believe this reflects our societal racism and sexism. We want those populations to be viewed as less powerful. So what is a child to think?

The child may determine that violence is ok, but only when it is against a particular race or gender. They may decide that violence against women is ok, but don’t ever attack a white man because they are always the good guy and are impossible to beat. They may “figure out” that violence against racial minorities are not always prosecuted. They may decide that violence is ok as long as you can justify it.

2) Children experience corporal punishment.

Yes, I went there. And I know the comments won’t be pretty. But if you teach your child not to be violent by being violent, you are creating a confusing environment for your child.

One of the common responses to my concerns about spanking is “my parents spanked me and I turned out fine”. But I would like to argue that you didn’t. There is a lot of trauma in the world today. Most individuals are exhibiting signs of trauma in their daily lives without realizing it. From ADHD to Bi-Polar Disorder to somatic experiences like chronic pain, our bodies are reacting to trauma, and most of that trauma came from our childhoods. Even the best parents traumatize their kids. Transcending our childhood trauma is one of our reasons for being.

 If you teach your child not to be violent by being violent, you are creating a confusing environment for your child.

Others’ trauma can be hard to understand, so I will try to illustrate it. Imagine if you walked around in a land of giants. Imagine if the giants would occasionally hit you, but you weren’t always sure why. The rules were too hard for your little brain to understand. And sometimes, you were just acting out what you didn’t understand, so you could learn. That sounds like an unjust world to me. And a lack of justice is traumatic.

The other response I hear often is “I have no other way of stopping his/her behavior”. But spanking doesn’t stop the behavior. It teaches children not to get caught. It teaches children to fear their parents. It teaches children to be sneaky around their parents. But it doesn’t stop behaviors. And some studies have shown that it increases aggressive behaviors.

3) Children experience yelling.

I know what you’re thinking. What else can I do to get my kids to listen? I am still working on this myself, so I can tell you from personal experience that yelling does NOT get children to listen. As a matter of a fact, the trauma causes them to tune me out completely.

Violence comes in many forms.

If you want your children to use positive methods of conflict resolution, you have to model those.  That starts with respect and calm communication.  There are some brilliant websites discussing peaceful discipline.  Some of my favorites are Janet Lansbury, Aha! Parenting and Hands Free Mama.

How can you tell if your child is having trouble processing violence?

1) The most obvious indicator is aggressive behavior. Children use play, to understand the world around them. If they get aggressive in their play or bully others, they may be trying to understand the violence they have been exposed to.

2) They may seem overly obsessed with the movie. They may ask you question after question even weeks after they have been exposed to the violence.

3) They may exhibit stress in less obvious ways like hyper-activity or physical manifestations, even becoming physically ill. Children will respond to violence holistically and we must understand that the reaction might not make sense.

What can you do if your child has been exposed to violence?

1) Use a site like Common Sense Media to help you understand what your child can handle. And then, use your parental intuition if the advice doesn’t seem like a good fit for your child.

2) Reframe your children’s violence for what it is. If a child hits another child, and he or she is no longer a toddler, call this what it is. It is assault. It is not “putting hands on someone”. It is not “an invasion of their space”.

3) Teach your child empathy. Believe it or not, empathy can be taught. I often ask my children how they would feel and their heartfelt response surprises me, but it requires reminders, especially as they grow.

4) If you are trying to stop yelling, talk openly with your children about your efforts. They will appreciate your vulnerability and may be able to help you too. The Orange Rhino shares many great examples of how to incorporate children in the parental growth process.

5) Talk openly about how they process violence differently than adults. My children will sometimes accuse me of withholding movies and games that their friends are allowed to see. I will explain the impact of the violence on them and they seem to understand. I think that deep down inside, they know it’s true and they appreciate my guidance. After all, that’s what parents are here for – to set boundaries where they cannot.

6) Most importantly, address your own trauma triggers. Take an honest look at what is causing your response to escalate. If you do nothing else, but address your own triggers, your reactions will move toward calmer conflict resolution.

We must work collectively to shift the paradigm of violence against children. And that requires us to be brutally honest with ourselves about how we are contributing to the problem by asking the hard questions. We have to expand our focus beyond those evil people who sexually and physically abuse children. It is that shift in our perspective which will change our future generations and the world. And it isn’t optional. It is imperative.

About Elisabeth

Elisabeth Corey Picture (2)Elisabeth Corey received her M.S.W. from Virginia Commonwealth University after twenty years in information technology and project management.  She is a survivor of family-controlled child sex trafficking and sex abuse and advocates for sexual violence survivors through her blog and virtual forum at She writes about the biological, psychological, social and spiritual aspects of trauma recovery from complex post traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) and dissociation. She intimately discusses issues that affect the daily lives of survivors, including breaking the cycle of abuse through conscious parenting, navigating intimate relationships as a survivor, balancing the memory recovery process with daily life, coping with self-doubt and overcoming the physical symptoms of a traumatic childhood.  Her goals are to provide trauma recovery techniques to adult sexual violence survivors, body safety education to children and sexual violence awareness to the general public.  Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

About Ginger

Chance and GK 2013-04-26Raising awareness of the world-wide epidemic of child abuse has become Ginger’s life mission. An impassioned child advocate, trainer, speaker and trained child forensic interviewer, Ginger regularly blogs about child protection issues. Along with her husband John and pets Lexi and Chase, Ginger enjoys traveling, skiing, hiking, brisk mornings, colorful sunsets and just hangin’ at home with “the Pack”.


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20 thoughts on “Violence in Childhood

  1. Really interesting article though I am not convinced by the statement “If a child hits another child, and he or she is no longer a toddler, call this what it is. It is assault. It is not “putting hands on someone”. It is not “an invasion of their space”. I think context is really important – sometimes it’s not assault. Sometimes it’s play wrestling. Somtimes it’s not assault, but self defence. Sometimes, if an adult touches a child without consent, its not abuse – it’s changing a nappy. Or giving a needle for medicine. I think the sentiment of what you are saying is correct – we need to not use euphemisms for what is assault. But I would suggest that the distinguishing feature here is not in the action (the “hitting” part) but is grounded in whether there is consent or agreement between the two people and the “stoppingness” of the activity once the consent has been withdrawn. As parents and teachers we need to give far greater emphasis to teaching children – from birth – that they have the right to say “no” (and how to do this) – and how to understand the consent signals of others.

    1. Laura,

      Thanks so much for your note. I think you raise excellent points! Context is indeed important and teaching children to respect others, as well as themselves, is a vital life lesson all children should learn. Thank you again for taking the time to share your spot-on thoughts.


  2. Very nice article. We have no idea YET about what humanity will look like after a few generations of children growing up without violence. It’s THE most important issue facing humanity and I applaud both of you for your work.


    1. Hello, Harris! Thank you for sharing your thoughts… it will indeed be interesting and soooooo agree with about the importance of this issue. Elisabeth always offers thoughtful insight into issues surrounding child protection.


    2. Well, Sweden oulawed corporal punishment of children in 1979; we have achieved generation 2 (for most children).

      We need to handle bullying as well, though, and that problem is more entrenched.

      1. Alex,

        I LOVE to hear that about Sweden… I did not know that. Thanks so much for sharing! Sadly, bullying is an issue both kids and adults face worldwide… so much more to do.


  3. I agree! I was in an abusive home and I still see myself changing things about myself because I am studying child advocacy and just learning where a few of these traits are coming from. The most recent one was discovering why my sleep was/has not the best…I was used to hearing my parents arguing at night because that would be when Dad got off work and Mom(my Mom was the abuser in this family and thank God, I did not take up that habit) would start in on him and I was always afraid that she would injure him(this being my adopted Dad because she had already ran off the biological Dad, which, now that I am older, I understand and am glad she did)… Sorry for the digression but, as adults, we do carry things with us that we may not be aware of until we do some research in books and then research ourselves. It’s so easy to “pass the buck” but it’s not good at all on the children later on down the road…
    Thanks again for the article.

    1. Cheryl,

      I’m impressed by your strength and self-awareness! Thank you for sharing… so many kids have/had similar experiences to yours. Thanks for channeling your experience, energy and talents to child advocacy. Here’s to getting some good sleep. xx


    2. Thank you Cheryl. It can take a long time and a lot of effort to piece together the affects of childhood violence once we reach adulthood. It sounds like you are doing a great job at finding the connection between the past and the present. It’s not easy, but it makes such a difference. Thank you for your work.

  4. This was a well-written article (I want to feature you both on my blog real soon). I experienced discipline most of my childhood (from doing things I should not have done a the way to receiving a report from school that I called out a great deal). I agree totally that it gave me more reason to rebel. I also want to contrast that to my sister who was never disciplined, but was given everything she wanted. Now she has a son and is treating him exactly how my parents disciplined me (which didn’t stopped until I was around 16). Me being abused didn’t matter.

    I said all that to say that this article was great!

    1. Tremayne,

      Thank you so much for your comments and feedback — I echo your thoughts about Elisabeth’s perspective and insight. Thanks for sharing!


    2. Thank you so much Tremayne. I appreciate all of your support on Twitter and here. I think abuse survivors can be the first to recognize more subtle violence too. We are certainly sensitized to it.

  5. Hi Elisabeth,
    Thanks for this excellent article. I wholeheartedly agree! Children are very sensitive and need to be shielded from the violence and fear in the media and even in Disney movies.
    They also need to be protected from our anger. It is not easy to stop hitting, or yelling, as a management strategy – even when you do see they are unhelpful and counter-productive. But it is such important work.
    How can we have a rule that it’s ok if you are bigger? This is basically what we are teaching kids if we tell them not to hit but we do it to them.
    Kind regards,

  6. Wonderful article! So much practical and important information. LOVE the inclusion of spanking and other corporal punishment as an influencer of aggressive behavior. Yes, it’s hard for some to understand because it’s how they were raised, but it’s time to learn. And I absolutely agree that empathy can be taught. A great way is to volunteer in the community with your child to introduce them to less fortunate individuals and people who come from different backgrounds. Thank you for this well written piece!

    1. Thank you Jarrett. I could not agree more about building empathy through volunteering. I am just starting to introduce my eight-year-olds to some volunteering opportunities. I think it makes a huge difference.

    2. Thanks, as always, for your input Jarrett. You and Elisabeth are both such strong parenting and safety advocates… I think you two need to connect!


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