Primary Sources: A New Study Finds That Exposure to Violence Affects Girls and Boys Differently

Photo of a teen boy and girl looking serious.

Gender Differences in the Longitudinal Impact of Exposure to Violence on Mental Health in Urban Youth (abstract). Journal of Youth and Adolescence, Vol. 40, No. 12, December 2011.

What it’s about: This study examined differences in the mental health symptoms experienced by boys and girls who have been exposed to violence.  Researchers surveyed 615 Chicago-area young people about their mental health at age 14 and again at age 16.

Why read it: Most research on young people’s exposure to violence reports broadly on the negative ways witnessing and experiencing violence affect their mental health. This study is more specific, exploring particular symptoms, including post-traumatic stress disorder and dissociation. Prior research shows that homeless youth suffer from these problems more often than other youth, so this study may be of particular interest to staff of runaway and homeless youth programs.

This is also one of few studies to look at how girls and boys experience these mental health problems differently.

Biggest takeaways for youth workers: Boys reported more exposure to violence than girls on average. Girls who had experienced violence were more likely than boys to experience dissociation. This symptom leads youth to detach themselves from their emotions, bodies or immediate surroundings.

The authors suggest that youth workers focus on decreasing boys’ high exposure to violence and helping girls process and cope with witnessing and experiencing violence. The authors also encourage youth-serving organizations that work with traumatized youth to screen for both PTSD symptoms and dissociation. Research has also shown that dissociation can lead to other mental health problems, such as depression, suicidal behavior and self-injury.

Additional reference: The Dissociative Experiences Scale (PDF, 148KB) is a screening tool for diagnosing dissociative symptoms. The authors of the 2004 study "Family Risk Factors and Prevalence of Dissociative Symptoms Among Homeless and Runaway Youth" (PDF, 627KB) used the scale with 628 runaway and homeless youth in shelters and on the streets.

To learn more about helping youth recover from the effects of violence and other traumatic experiences, read NCFY’s "Asking: 'What’s Happened to You?' A Focus on Trauma-informed Care," and check out the National Safe Start Center’s trauma-informed care tip sheets.

(Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of NCFY, FYSB or the Administration for Children and Families. Go to the NCFY literature database for abstracts of these and other publications.)

9-5 pm Eastern