For many adults, violence is a reality every day— in newspapers and television, schools, their communities, and, importantly, in many homes in the form of domestic violence. Young children may also experience violence at very early ages, sometimes even before they are born. Children may directly experience, witnesses or sense violence around them.
It is easy to think that babies and toddlers are not affected by exposure to violence. After all, they may not be completely aware of what is happening around them. But this is a myth. Even if young children do not fully understand, they can feel the danger and the loss. Babies may not be able to talk, but they hear noise and sense tension. Research suggests that experiencing ongoing violence can change the way a child’s brain develops and functions.
When children are born, they are completely dependent on adults and they get upset when their needs are not met. Babies and toddlers know their caregivers’ smell, the sound of their voices, the way they hold them, and the rhythms of the day. They notice when these things are disturbed or disappear. Young children also notice moods—like when a caregiver is tense, more quiet than normal, or comes to the crib slower than usual when they cry.
Children’s ability to show understanding, caring, sharing, and love is connected to the relationships they develop as babies and young children. As infants, children develop attachments by learning to trust that parents and other adults will protect them and provide for their needs. Toddlers further strengthen these bonds by communicating with adults and children at school. They learn to cooperate, take turns, observe rules, and share.
These early bonds begin to develop the blueprints for all other relationships that a child will have. They are important for his or her sense of safety, security, and willingness to try new things. Early relationships also help prepare children to learn and do well in school.
When a parent has been exposed to violence and or when a baby or toddler sees or hears violence in the home, he or she can lose this sense of safety to violence. Sometimes the emotional scars that result from violence may cause damage and heartbreak to a family, similar to the pain of physical wounds.
From birth to age two, babies grow and change quickly. Every child is unique. Some of the things that are typical for babies include smiling, laughing, making gurgling noises, following you with their eyes, and becoming attached to one person more than others—usually their primary caregiver(s). When babies have been exposed to violence they show changes in sleeping and eating patterns, become clingy, and have difficulty separating from adults (especially parents). Sometimes babies become fearful of new things, easily startled and display inconsolable crying, a lack of curiosity and a sober mood.
Typically, developing toddlers (12 to 18 months) show growing feelings of independence, use words or gestures to communicate needs, express feelings, and begin to interact with other children. When toddlers are exposed to violence, however, the development of language, curiosity, and exploratory and skills are interrupted. The toddler may have more difficulty paying attention, become fearful, aggressive or anxious, react to loud noises, and complain of stomachaches and other physical complaints.
How to help a baby or toddler who has been exposed to violence
– The publication for parents, Healing the Invisible Wounds, available on the Safe Start Center website, offers many suggestions to help children of different ages cope with exposure to violence. Among the suggestions for babies and toddlers are the following:
– Look for changes in a child’s behavior. Is the baby/toddler acting differently? Sometimes it’s hard to tell what’s normal and what’s not. For example, babies have days when they are clingy or do not want to eat. But if a baby does these things more and more often, to the point that you become concerned, you may need to consult with a mental health professional.
– Provide comfort with a security blanket, a pacifier, or a special toy.
– Soothe them by rocking, holding or singing,
– Spend time in face-to-face interactions, lots of baby talk and giggles. Babies love to see your face and hear their caregiver´s voice.
– Follow their lead. If the child wants to be picked up, do so.
– Ask questions that will help them tell you their feelings. For example, “You look scared. Would you like me to hold you?” Or, “You look sad. What would help you feel better?”
– Find people you trust to babysit so you can take care of yourself.