Our children are mirrors, reflecting images of what happens around them. In addition to sharing genetic similarities with parents, they reflect the gestures, language, and interests of the adults in their lives. You'll notice your child holding a crayon just like Dad holds his pen, or using a phrase Grandma says often. The behavior and habits children are exposed to at an early age can become behaviors and habits they carry into adulthood.
The human brain does 80 percent of its growing in the first three years of life. Genetics guide the growth of a brain in the skull, but do not completely design the brain. Instead, genes prepare the brain to be adaptable, hardwiring itself according to the experiences and environment in which your child grows up. Because experiences have a direct impact on brain development, your child is especially vulnerable to negative experiences in these first, vital years.
Witnessing Violence can Shape Behavior
According to The Urban Child Institute's 2011 Data Book: The State of Children in Memphis and Shelby County, more than 60 percent of children in the U.S. reported being exposed to violence during the past year. In some cases, the child may be the victim, but kids can also be affected by witnessing a violent act, or even hearing about violence suffered by friends or family members. Violence can manifest in many ways, from outright physical brutality to verbal abuse, threats of violence, and damage to property and possessions.
Sandra Turner Brown, director of the Lipman School at the University of Memphis and an expert in early childhood education, says young children regularly exposed to violence can develop behavioral characteristics they'll carry through life, compromising their academic, social, and professional abilities.
"Exposure to arguments and physical conflict can push kids into the extremes of aggression or withdrawal," says Brown. "They can develop a deep distrustfulness of others, or fall into a pervasive sadness." Their sense of trust and safety is diminished, and they begin to see their world as a dangerous place filled with adults who cannot keep them safe.
Brown says by age 7 or 8, these changes in the child's perception of the world are extremely difficult to change. "Changing these behaviors later in life takes a good doctor and lots of money", Brown says, only half jokingly.
Research also shows that a child's sense of mutual respect for and dependence upon others is compromised when exposed to violence early in life. They begin to perceive relying on others as a sign of vulnerability, and see violence as a key element to interactions with other people in their lives.
"Years ago, it came to our staff's attention that a young girl in our school was being exposed to violence at home," says Brown. "She would arrive in the morning, put her coat and things in her cubby, and immediately pick up a baby doll, which she would violently attack."
While the child wasn't the direct victim, witnessing violence in the home, between loved ones, left a deep mark on her psyche. She lacked the verbal skills to articulate what she was experiencing, but was already beginning to incorporate the behavior into her life.
Kids Need Words of Assurance
While there is no place for physical violence in any home, this isn't to say kids should be shielded from all arguments and conflict. As long as the adults in the situation are staying in control of their emotions, anger and frustration can present important learning opportunities. An argument between Mom and Dad is frightening for a young child, but seeing them carve out a solution through dialog and compromise can teach important lessons about human interactions.
"The beginning of an argument is a good moment for parents to have a brief dialog with kids," says Brown. "Take a moment to say something like: 'This is an adult situation, we love each other and we are going to get this resolved. Don't worry. Soon, you'll see that we're okay.' "
This article was originally published in the October edition of Memphis Parent.