About Polyvictimization

Polyvictimization is the exposure to multiple types of violence or victimization such as child abuse/neglect, childhood sexual abuse, bullying or cyberbullying, domestic violence, school violence, community and gang violence, medical trauma, natural disaster, or terrorism. There is a growing collection of research that shows that the impact of polyvictimization is more powerful than even multiple events of a single type of victimization.

Consequences of Trauma and Victimization

1 out of 4 children will experience some abuse or other traumatic event during their youth. Children who suffer from physical abuse and/or neglect are more likely to suffer from physical injuries and/or behavioral and emotional consequences, cognitive delays, impaired development, and consequently poor academic achievement.

Ongoing reactions to child traumatic stress include:

    • Emotional symptoms including depression, anxiety, behavioral changes and problems, as well as learning difficulties, including attention problems.
    • Physical symptoms including sleeping and eating problems, as well as frequent nightmares.

Children are resilient and are often able to overcome the negative consequences associated with violence and trauma. However, some children exposed to traumatic events will suffer from traumatic stress and develop reactions that persist and affect their daily lives long after the trauma has ended.

In fact, the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study found that early exposure to adverse childhood experiences such as physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, as well as neglect, violence, household dysfunction, parental substance abuse or mental illness, and an absent parent are strong predictors of later health problems and early mortality.

Societal Impact of Abuse/Neglect

In addition to the consequences to children, there are also long-term impacts on society:

Perhaps the most important impact of child abuse and neglect is the longer-term impact on families. When children grow up in homes where their needs are not met, and if they later become parents themselves, they often have not learned effective parenting skills. They may also lack the social skills to obtain help, and experience emotional problems that affect their ability to receive help that is offered. As adults, the victims of childhood abuse can feel hopeless, helpless, mistrustful, and often depressed. They are more likely to have substance abuse problems, experience domestic violence, and engage in criminal behaviors which complicate and compound their problems. Therefore, as adults, these children are more likely to fall into the vicious cycle of failing to meet the needs of their own children. This unfortunate repetition influences future generations, our communities, and our society as a whole.


David Finkelhor, Ph.D.

Director, Crimes Against Children Research Center, University of New Hampshire


Assessment and Treatment of Polyvictims

David Finkelhor, Heather Turner, Sherry Hamby and Richard Ormrod outlined and explained important implications for practitioners, policymakers, and researchers in 2011:

Awareness about polyvictimization has many potential implications for those who work with youth victims and what they can do to identify and intervene on behalf of children who are exposed to multiple forms of violence:

  1. Assess for additional types of victimization. Children need to be assessed for a broader range of victimizations. When children are identified as victims of sexual abuse or bullying, professionals who work with them need to find out what else is going on, as these children often experience other types of victimization and adversity.
  2. Priority for polyvictims. Professionals who work with children need to pay particular attention to polyvictims because of their vulnerability to mental health, behavioral, school performance, and other problems. These children can be identified in schools, in social welfare and mental health caseloads, and in the foster care and juvenile justice systems; and they warrant priority in victimization interventions. When child welfare and other professionals intervene on these children’s behalf, they need to ensure that they are not minimizing polyvictims’ victimization histories (e.g., treating them simply as victims of child abuse when they are also being bullied, or simply as victims of bullying when they are also being sexually abused). In addition, as studies have shown that bully-victims (victims of violence who also bully others) have the worst outcomes and are more likely to have multiple victimizations, educators and other child welfare professionals who work with children who bully others should recognize the need for more comprehensive assessments to identify them as potential polyvictims and for treatment that takes into account their multiple domains of victimization (Holt, Finkelhor, and Kaufman Kantor, 2007).
  3. Polyvictim interventions. Interventions need to be developed to encompass multiple victimizations. Therapies should not just focus on (for example) sexual abuse alone, but should be multifaceted, addressing multiple types of victimizations, as many of the risk factors for one type of victimization are shared among multiple types of victimization. Therefore, prevention interventions that focus on addressing common underlying risk factors are likely to have the greatest benefit. Strategies for reducing stigma or traumatic reminders also need to be applied to the full range of victimization exposure.
  4. Treat underlying vulnerabilities. Professionals who conduct interventions with polyvictims must recognize that such children not only suffer from victimization trauma but may also be caught in an overall environment or individual-environmental-interactive conditions that perpetuate victimization. Therefore, intervention professionals must assess these conditions and develop strategies such as teaching parenting and guardianship skills to parents and other adult caregivers that address these circumstances.
  5. Broaden child protection. Awareness of the importance of polyvictimization suggests that the traditional child protective services (CPS) approach might benefit from some broadening of its capacities. An intervention system that helps children only in regard to threats from family members may be too narrow. Although it is unrealistic to expand CPS to respond to reports of all forms of child victimization, children within the current CPS system may benefit if child protection workers are trained to assess children for exposure to multiple forms of victimization in the same way that police are trained to assess for multiple crimes. CPS systems could then design and implement service responses that are pertinent to the variety of threats children face. They have to be prepared to work with law enforcement, educators, and mental health professionals.
  6. Interrupt onset sequences. Because polyvictimization is associated with so much distress, it should be a priority to determine how to best interrupt the pathways into this condition. Early intervention and primary prevention are needed, along with an awareness that dangerous and disrupted families, dangerous neighborhoods, and emotional problems can all be early warning indicators of current or future polyvictimization. Professionals who work with children need to help build the supervision and protection capacities of family members, legal guardians, caregivers, teachers, and other adults who may be in a position to intervene to help children, and thus stop the onset of and progression toward polyvictimization. One strategy may be to target the transition to new schools, particularly elementary and high schools. It may be useful to sensitize teachers and other school staff to quickly identify children in these entering classes who may be victims. This would help ensure that prevention and intervention approaches that address multiple forms of victimization are in place for children during these important transitional phases. The findings also suggest another strategy, to encourage teachers and child welfare professionals to be more aware of younger children with emotional distress symptoms. In addition to whatever mental health interventions these children might receive to address their victimization experiences and associated symptoms, these professionals can take advantage of the opportunity to refer children and their families to preventive interventions that can address individual, relationship, and community factors that predict perpetration and prevent repeated or additional forms of victimization. Another implication is that school staff and child welfare workers should pay particular attention when children report sexual victimization, including sexual harassment by peers. These events may signal broader victimization vulnerability. Responding adults may need to extend their focus beyond the specific sexual report to include an assessment of other forms of exposure to victimization.

(*Excerpted from Polyvictimization: Children’s Exposure to Multiple Types of Violence, Crime, and Abuse (2011). Read the full article here.)

Polyvictimization Articles & Presentations

Pathways from Polyvictimization to Youth Problem Behaviors: The Critical Role of School Engagement | Dexter R. Voisin, PhD, Professor & Caitlin M. Elsaesser, MSW Doctoral Student

School engagement has a powerful influence on youth development. Youth who fail in school are at significant risk for a host of subsequent psychosocial outcomes, including substance use, risky sexual behaviors, gang involvement, and increased contact with juvenile justice authorities. Although school engagement is an important determinant of key developmental outcomes, few studies have adequately considered how polyvictimization may not only compromise school engagement but also negatively impact psychological functioning and lead to negative peer affiliations with gangs, thereby subsequently increasing the risk for drug use and subsequent juvenile justice involvement.

Download the article to continue reading.

Polyvictimization: Children’s Exposure to Multiple Types of Violence, Crime, and Abuse | David Finkelhor, Heather Turner, Sherry Hamby and Richard Ormrod

All too often, children are victims of violence, crime, and abuse. This victimization may take the form of physical assault, child maltreatment, sexual abuse, or bullying. They may also witness such events in their homes, schools, and communities. Some children suffer several different kinds of such victimization even over a relatively brief timespan. These children and youth are at particularly high risk for lasting physical, mental, and emotional harm.

Download the article to continue reading.

Violence, Abuse, and Crime Exposure in a National Sample of Children and Youth | David Finkelhor, Heather Turner, Richard Ormrod and Sherry L. Hamby

Children and adolescents are exposed to more violence, abuse, and crime than are adults, an exposure that is responsible for considerable physical and mental health morbidity. This study gives precise dimensions of exposure to a wide range of specific forms of violence, abuse, and crime at different developmental stages, and demonstrates how some children and adolescents accumulate a very large number of these exposures.

Download the study to continue reading.

Developmental Victimology: Conceptualizing and Intervening in Crime, Violence, and Abuse in the Lives of Children | Dr. David Finkelhor

In this lecture, Dr. Finkelhor discusses the broad range of crimes and victimizations children suffer from and discusses some of the reasons for this vulnerability. He also explains some of the barriers to combating and raising awareness about these conditions. He goes on to introduce the field of developmental victimology, its principles, as well as sharing the gravity and seriousness of “polyvictimization.” He then proposes activities that participants can use to curtail victimization and intervene on behalf of child and youth victims.

Where There’s Heat… Violence, Polyvictimization and Developmental Trauma in Children’s Lives | Julian D. Ford
In this National Child Traumatic Stress Network slide presentation, Dr. Julian Ford from the University of Connecticut discusses the numbers of polyvictims, the implications, developmental trauma disorder, and recommendations for a multi-system, multidisciplinary response.

Download the presentation.