Zarrina Kurtz, a consultant in public medicine who is leading a Department of Health review of child mental services, said too much violence, physical and psychological, is accepted as an everyday part of life.
She told a conference organised last week by the child mental health group Young Minds on the link between violent behaviour and psychological damage: "We must question the premise which says that we need only prevent the kind of violence that requires medical or criminal responses."
The London conference, sponsored by The TES, was the culmination of a year-long campaign by Young Minds to illustrate the damaging effects of abuse and violence on children's mental health. The past 12 months have seen symposia covering bullying, violence in the media, child sexual abuse, and the violence inflicted by war and refugee status.
Dr Kurtz said that public strategies should concentrate on reducing the level of risk for the majority of people rather than on just a few individuals at the greatest risk. This, she said, would have the greatest general effect and would have a significant impact in breaking cycles of violence.
"We should aim to shift the whole statistical distribution so that that nearly everyone enjoys a slightly lower risk level than before," said Dr Kurtz.
One of the best approaches, she said, would be to boost the status of parenthood.
Also, she suggested that professionals should pay attention to the victims of abuse as well as the perpetrators. Until now children suffering violent or abusive behaviour have received little more than attempts to "patch up" the physical damage.
The conference also heard from Dr Sebastian Kraemer, consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist at the Tavistock Clinic, that a policy of statutory paternity leave would be a major step forward in breaking the cycle of poor parenting and subsequent family breakdown. Too often, he said, parents are left to fend for themselves in difficult circumstances.
An earlier paper from Dr Danya Glaser, consultant child and family psychiatrist at the Lewisham and Guy's Mental Health Trust, warned against ignoring non-physical violence - deliberate hurt or humiliation - that can prove just as psychologically damaging.
"Violence is affecting so many children," said Young Minds director Peter Wilson. "There are things we can and should do about it."