The stress some young children suffer after being exposed to violence in their neighborhoods or homes may have repercussions for their physical health, according to a new study.
Researchers found that among 160 preschoolers from low-income families, 78 percent had been exposed to some form of violence — either in their communities or in their own homes, sometimes in the form of child maltreatment.Those children who consequently suffered symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder — such as nightmares or bedwetting — were at greater risk than their peers of having a number of health conditions, including asthma, gastrointestinal problems and headaches.In the past, studies have found that young children exposed to violence between their parents have heightened rates of anxiety, fear and aggression. Other research has linked such childhood experiences to poorer health in adulthood.But little research has looked into how post-traumatic stress — a potential reaction to violence — affects children’s health in general, according to Dr. Sandra A. Graham-Bermann, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and one of the co-authors of the new report.”Our study is unique in that we linked stress in the child’s social environment to specific health problems of the child,” she told Reuters Health.The study, published in the Journal of Pediatrics, included 160 Michigan children who were taking part in Head Start, a federal preschool program for low-income families.Mothers and teachers reported on the children’s health, behavior and symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Mothers were also surveyed about their children’s exposure to violence in the community — ranging from shootings and stabbings to accidents and arrests — and within the family.Exposure to violence, the researchers found, was common, and included many instances of child maltreatment. In addition, children had witnessed an average of two violent incidents in their neighborhoods.Overall, 20 percent of the children had reactions that were consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder — though nearly all had some signs of traumatic stress.Health problems, including allergies, asthma, colds and flu, were more common among children with PTSD, the study found. In particular, these children had a four-times higher risk of asthma and gastrointestinal problems than their peers did.Moreover, the apparent effect of PTSD on children’s health was over and above the impact of child maltreatment, domestic violence and mothers’ health and substance abuse, according to the researchers.Distress and anxiety, Graham-Bermann noted, can contribute to poor physical health, and studies show that even very young children can become afraid and worried after witnessing violence.The positive aspect of the study findings, according to Graham-Bermann, is that they point to an additional way doctors can get at the heart of some children’s health problems. The study, she said, shows the importance of looking “beyond the symptoms presented in the office” and asking questions about the environment in which children are living.(Source: The Journal of Pediatrics: Reuters Health: Amy Norton: April 2005.)