Exposure to Violence Damages the Genetic Code in Children

Chromosomes are composed of DNA. They carry your genetic code and are located in the nucleus of every cell in the body. As cells divide to form new cells, an exact copy of each chromosome is placed in the nucleus of the daughter cell. The integrity of the genetic code in chromosomes is preserved by a protective cap of DNA called a telomere that covers the tips of chromosomes inside each cell. 

Every time a cell divides, the telomeres get a little bit shorter. After about 50 to 60 cell divisions, the telomeres disappear completely and cells are programmed to die. People who have shortened telomeres are more susceptible to disease and premature death. Telomere length is a useful gauge of biological age.

When children witness domestic violence, are physically abused by an adult, or bullied frequently at school, their telomeres are shortened the equivalent of several years of aging. A study published in the Journal of Molecular Psychiatry demonstrates the genetic damage caused by violence, abuse, and bullying.

Previous studies have shown that emotional stress can shorten telomeres, prematurely aging cells. However, only recently was it revealed that this can occur in children. This study examined 236 children ages 5-10. Half of the children had peaceful childhoods, whereas the other half witnessed domestic violence, experienced physical abuse at the hands of their parents, or were bullied at school. 

The researchers measured telomere length in thousands of cells from each child to determine the average telomere length. As expected, telomere length decreased slowly in all the children as they got older.

Exposure to violence was assessed at ages 5, 7, and 10. The 39 children who experienced multiple types of violence exhibited a dramatic decrease in telomere length compared with normal children. Based on telomere length, these children had lost about 7 to 10 years of life compared with children who had a more tranquil childhood. These results confirm that children who experience violence age at a faster rate. 

This fact is captured in the scripture that says, “The fear of the Lord prolongs days, but the years of the wicked will be shortened” (Proverbs 10:27 (NKJV)). Scientific evidence indicates that this is true for the children of the wicked as well as for their parents. 

Mrs. Ellen White, a 19th century health reformer, wrote more than 150 years ago that bullying could prove injurious to a child. She said, “How careful an older sister should be of her young brother or sister lest her influence should prove an injury to him or her. It is too often the case that the older children  watch almost every move of the little brother or sister, to fret at, complain of, and tease them, until there is stamped upon their countenance a disagreeable, cross expression” (Youth Instructor May 1, 1859).

She advised to never treat children harshly, “Never treat your children harshly; for harshness arouses stubbornness and resistance. You will find that they are most easily and successfully governed by kindness and gentleness. Let there be no scolding, no loud-voiced, angry commands. Obey the injunction, “Be still, and know that I am God” (Signs of the Times, November 11, 1903).

Consistent kindness to children may add years to their lives.