Child Abuse Changes the Brain

Child Abuse Changes the Brain

A follow up report on a study done two decades ago has determined that child abuse qualifies as a public health concern.  The report concluded that abuse and neglect have the ability to change the brain and that these changes have a significant impact in how the child functions both as a child and into adulthood.

The preferred response to this report, according to researchers, would be the “immediate, coordinated” development of a national strategy meant to address abuse, increasing understanding and prevention.

As of today, the United States Department of Health and Human Services has a manual on its website meant to outline abuse response techniques.  Although it is extensive, it was authored in 1994.  This is problematic because, according to the report, the rates of abuse have shifted rather than declined.  While rates of reported physical and sexual abuse have gone down, instances of psychological and emotional abuse have risen.  The reasons for this change in rates is not understood and creates potential issues of efficacy with the policies that are older than the shifting trends.

The repercussions of psychological and emotional abuse are far reaching.  As adults, these children can experience difficulties with mental illness, impulse control, and attachments to others resulting increased instances of substance abuse, legal difficulties, domestic abuse, increased health costs, and lost wages.

The findings of impairment by the researchers led its chairperson, Anne Petersen, to conclude, “Child abuse and neglect is a serious public health problem which requires immediate, urgent attention.”

The effect of child abuse on the brain has been shown to involve changes in how the limbic system — the emotional center — of the brain functions.  Studies have shown an increased rate of abnormalities in this region of the brain based upon the types of abuse a person is exposed to.  When different types of abuses are combined, this rate of change to soar to as high as 113 percent.

Changes to this region of the brain are typically associated with the development of posttraumatic stress disorder as the limbic system also plays an important role in survival instincts, such as flight, fight or freeze.  Maladaptive reactions to stimuli can be conditioned into the limbic system, causing stress reactions that are inappropriate to the immediate environment once the person is removed from the source of abuse.

Trauma affects other areas of the brain as well.  Stress reduces the ability for the cortex to function properly, diminishing a child’s capacity for problem solving and rationalization when under high amounts of stress.  Suppressed cortical activity can also aid in the reactiveness of the limbic system as it affects the child’s ability to process the events happening around them.

Luckily, the brain has a built in feature known as neural plasticity, which means that with treatment the negative changes in a child’s brain can be redirected into more adaptive patterns of activity.  With the removal of the abusive environment and the introduction of therapy and support, a child’s brain can begin to make positive adjustments that would permit the child to develop more normally.  Interventions in the vein would help lessen the impact of childhood trauma on adult life.

The report indicates that there are still many factors to child abuse that are not understood, such as why some aspects of the economic downturn have affected rates while other factors have not.  This lack of understanding leaves intervention efforts incomplete.  That is why the researchers involved stressed the importance of immediate and extensive research be conducted following this report.  Considering that the manual on the DHHS website is older than a lot of the science surrounding the changes in the brain, a comprehensive update on child abuse intervention policies seems of the utmost importance.

Written by: Vanessa Blanchard

Department of Health and Human Services News Source

Washington Post News Source

Adults Surviving Child Abuse News Source

10 Responses to "Child Abuse Changes the Brain"

  1. Jay Mcamis   March 9, 2019 at 9:28 am

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  2. Rik   September 24, 2013 at 10:35 pm

    A statement and a question to Vanessa….. many Dr’s say that mental abuse is more harming than physical abuse but do nothing to correct it…. Do you know of ANY Dr’s that will entertain mental abuse like they would physical?

    • wolfgang heuer - heureka47   September 24, 2013 at 11:43 pm

      Under the influence of the Collective Civilization Neurosis (sickness of society; Fromm, Reich, et al) big majority of Drs / scientists don’t understand what humans are (mainly) and how their thinking / feeling etc. works.
      M. Balint wrote about the Basic Disorder (German: “Grundstörung”) children become victims of very early in life, sometimes already before birth.
      Most other children in sick civilized society “close” their consciousness for emotional / social learning very early, when there is deprivation and/or no love / trust. Thus, they develop a complex disorder (asking / communication / (holistic) learning disorder) besides may be others.

      For good / healthy development children need an environment of unconditional love, which big majority of “adults” cannot provide. As E. Fromm writes, most “adults” in modern / civilized society are not really / true adult. They all need basical healing – which is doubtless possible, but the system of medical care / science does not see the problem nor the solution for it, because they are also affected by the Collective Civilization Neurosis.

      Even if children become victims of abuse / deprivation / trauma or similar, they can get fully rid of that in the process of basic healing in initiation (puberty), by cleaning the (sub-)consciousness with the power of love of the higher / true self, the higher consciousness level.

    • wolfgang heuer - heureka47   September 24, 2013 at 11:46 pm

      May be, abuse changes the brain. But the true adult, changed to the higher level of consciousness, is not bound to that. May be, the higher consciousness power can even change again ( further) the brain. It is said, that higher consciousness can even change the genes!

  3. Bonnie E. Jones   September 14, 2013 at 1:28 am

    I worked with abused children for 20 years in the 80’s thru 90’s. What you say makes perfect sense. First that the most prevalent form of abuse would change, because so much emphasis has been put on detecting abuse, particularly physical & sexual, which are more easily detected & proven. The perpetrators would concentrate more on mental & emotional as those are not as easy to detect or prove. After all, the purpose of child abuse is control/power. Since this is more difficult to prove or detect and has a more tremendous, lasting impact, it would be the form of choice.
    Secondly the change in the limbic system & the effect on lingering inappropriate behaviors explains what I experienced over & over again. Never knew the reason, only that it occurred consistantly. Thank you so much. Bonnie Jones

  4. heureka47   September 13, 2013 at 9:27 pm

    I am working for 20 years on the origins of sicknesses and health. I found that the deepest cause of the problems in / of the civilized society is its alienation to being true adults, the “Collective Civilization Neurosis” how I call it since 1992, when I started my project for information about this neurosis and the way of basical healing.
    If mankind doesn’t go this way of – very natural – healing, there will be no future for it…

  5. Stephanie   September 13, 2013 at 9:26 am

    I was abused as a child. I don’t feel you should stereotype. I believe as much as things are environmental, genetics play a role, and more important spirituality. People can overcome anything. It isn’t easy. I was diagnosed with posttraumatic stress syndrome in my twenties. That was difficult. I couldn’t remember much, but was having horrible nightmares. I was trying to live a normal life. My father was mentally ill, so I had to forgive him. My point is these children (including me) can heal. It is a long road. Don’t put them all on one box! We might be weird, stand out a little, but we can heal.

    • Vanessa Blanchard   September 13, 2013 at 9:35 am

      Stephanie, that was absolutely the point of the report. This is a call to action to research the best ways to help those who are abused to heal and to help them have more normal lives. The intent of the article was not to stereotype, but to advocate and bring awareness.

  6. barbara schwind   September 12, 2013 at 8:40 pm

    Fetal Alcohol Syndrome affects the brain in within the womb but dose not show up
    until early childhood and creates anger and disruptive behavior in school age children.
    As a CASA volunteer I see this behavior and also in one of my own grandchildren.
    The general public needs to be made more aware of this the damage that can be done
    to the unborn in the womb.

  7. Jeffrey Whittaker   September 12, 2013 at 8:29 pm

    The authorities are the most responsible for the stress people experience due to the economic conditions people are forced to live in, which causes people to have unhealthy lifestyles full of aggression and inhibition leading to child abuse!


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