Witnessing Violence Disrupts Sleep in Children


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Sleep is essential to a child’s health and violence can have a negative impact. Photo by: Holly

When children witness violent acts, or are the victims of abuse, it not only affects them during the day, but also impacts the amount and quality of sleep the kids get at night.

In a new study, researchers examined how much violence affects the sleep habits of children.

Violence, Children, and Sleep

In this study, James Spilsbury, PhD, and his colleagues measured the sleep of 46 children in a program for kids exposed to violence.

The kids’ ages ranged from eight to 16 years old, and they were monitored for seven days. The study concluded that the more severe the violent act witnessed, the more the child’s sleep was impacted.

Researchers also discovered that specific aspects of the violent act impacts different parts of the child’s sleep. For example, researchers found that children who witnessed a homicide have more inconsistent sleep as time passes. To understand more about this research, and the ways in which violence affects children’s sleep, Decoded Science interviewed Dr. Spilsbury, principal investigator of the study.

Studying Violence and Children: Interview With Dr. James Spilsbury

What types of violence did you study, when conducting this research?

“For a little over half the sample (57%), the ‘index event’ that generated the referral to the study was an incident of family violence, which was usually intimate partner violence. The index event for the remaining 43% of children involved community violence, usually an assault of a family member. Four of the events involved a homicide. 41% of the children were themselves physically assaulted during this index event.”

How did you measure the sleep habits of the children?

“We used actigraphy. An actigraph is a small,  wristwatch-like device you wear on your arm. It translates movement into measures of sleep/wake status. The children wore the actigraph for 7 days at each of the two time points. Children also kept a sleep journal durng the weeks they wore the actigraph to help interpret the actigraphy data.  The journal asks questions like what time did you go to bed, what time did you wake up.”

The results of this study were significant: kids are resilient, but even children who may appear unaffected do experience sleep variations as the result of exposure to violence. According to Dr. Spilsbury, in this study there were two main results:

“(1) Across the study period, children who were victimized (physically assaulted) during the violent event they witnessed had lower sleep duration and lower sleep efficiency (time in bed actually asleep) than the children who were not victimized by the event, and this effect did not change over the study period; and (2) children who witnessed a homicide were somewhat more likely to have greater nightly variation in sleep duration over time.”

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