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Dr. Zorba Paster: Address childhood violence and give kids a fighting chance

Recent research out of the British Medical Journal shows that kids who witness violence lose IQ points.

I find that shocking. It must be horrifying as a child to see violence in the house, but the concept that this can affect future intelligence is mind-boggling.

Here’s the study: In 1975, researchers in Minnesota were interested in seeing how well first-time moms on medical assistance fared at home. They visited them throughout the pregnancy and then for up to eight years after the child was born.

During this time, they evaluated each child’s language development and, when they were old enough, intelligence through IQ tests. Each kid also had a social worker who visited the house – going there to identify whether there was any physical or mental abuse occurring or whether anyone in the house had trouble with the law.

When the study was completed, researchers compared the groups. The kids who had witnessed domestic violence, or had violence committed against them, had a significant drop in their IQ scores.

So what’s happening?

From birth to age 2, the brain goes through a remarkable development. For many years, we’ve known that kids who are raised in a nurturing environment do better in school. Parents who read to their kids, play with their kids, explain things to their kids, are more likely to raise successful, happy adults. Positive stimulation and reinforcement works.

It’s clear from this study that the opposite also is true. The negative stimulation of witnessing mental or physical trauma to yourself or others is harmful.

My spin: Each year in the U.S., there are about 750,000 reported cases of child maltreatment. Couple that with the estimated 10 million of our children who witness violence and you have a staggering statistic. In this study, one out of three had been mistreated or had witnessed domestic violence by the time they were 5. I find this so very, very sad.

What can we do as a society? Identify at-risk families and step in to give them help. It’s the job of all of us to protect the child.

Don’t be silent. Don’t stand back and say, “It’s not my place to say something.” If you know there is hanky-panky going on, take action. Get someone to help – the police, social worker, school psychologist, minister, rabbi, other friends. Just do something.

In this case clearly silence is not golden.

Dr. Zorba Paster is a family physician, professor, author and broadcast journalist. He also hosts a radio call-in program at 3 p.m. Saturdays on WBFO-FM 88.7.