Child Abuse Impacts Brain Development

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has published an extensive new report on child abuse and neglect. Below is a summarized version of some of the report’s findings…

Elevated Risk Environments

The study highlights factors that create an “elevated risk” for child abuse and neglect to occur. Factors with the strongest support in scientific research and literature include: substance abuse, family history of child abuse and/or neglect, and depression. The study recognizes that other factors may also be associated with child abuse and neglect.

Effects of Child Abuse and Neglect

Abuse and neglect actually affects the way a child’s brain develops, therefore, creating lifelong consequences.

“Childhood abuse and neglect have a profound and often lasting impact that can encompass psychological and physical health, neurobiological development, relational skills, and risk behaviors.”

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Photo courtesy of the Child Advocacy Center of Galveston County

Scientific studies show that abuse and neglect affects the development of the “amygdala, a structure in the brain that is critically involved in emotion.” In addition, “a number of studies suggest that abuse and neglect are associated with functional changes in the prefrontal cortex and associated brain regions, often affecting inhibitory control.”

Children who suffer abuse and/or neglect are more likely to exhibit: deficits in executive functioning and behavioral regulation, academic problems, emotional processing deficits, attachment disorders, an inability to regulate their emotions when interacting with others, problematic peer relations, dissociation, post traumatic stress disorder, stunted growth, obesity, and heightened anxiety. This results in a high percentage of victims as they age to be institutionalized, struggle with various addictions, attempt suicide, and engage in sexual activity at earlier ages.

Hope through Early Intervention and Treatment

Early interventions and treatment can effectively work to reverse the negative effects. In a recent Washington Post Article, Mary Dozier, NAS report committee member and University of Delaware chairman of child development, stated that,

“the effects seen on abused children’s brain and behavioral development are not static. If we can intervene and change a child’s environment, we actually see plasticity in the brain. So, we see negative changes when a child is abused, but we also see positive brain changes when the abuse ends and they are more supported. Interventions can be very effective.”