Like no other time in history, we can measure the impact of child abuse and neglect in early childhood. New brain imaging technologies and some human growth studies have shed light on the impact of neglect and abuse on brain development in children. These diagnostic tools teach us about the critical nature of early intervention.
It is important to be aware of effects of abuse and neglect.
Of course, the best thing we can do is make sure to nurture and care for our children so that abuse and neglect never occur.
Behaviors of early childhood abuse and neglect
Persistent Fear Response
Chronic stress of repeated traumas can result in a number of biological reactions including a persistent fear-state. Simply put, chronic activation of certain parts of the brain can “wear out” other parts of the brain.
Fear releases cortisol in the brain. Persistent excessive release of this hormone can actually damage neurons in critical areas, thus shaping a child’s perception of and response to his environment. Once persistent fear is established, it can become very difficult to change, even if the environment improves.
When children are exposed to chronic, traumatic stress, their brains sensitize the pathways for the fear response and create memories that automatically trigger that response without conscious thought. This is called hyperarousal.
Hyperaroused children will overreact to cues that are normal. Because hyperaroused children are constantly looking for threat-cues, their brains are less able to interpret and respond to verbal cues in a nonthreatening environment.
They are often labeled as learning disabled, but in reality are in a state of constant alert, and therefore, cannot achieve the calm necessary for learning.
Infants or children who are the victims of repeated abuse may respond to that abuse (and later in life to other unpleasantness) by mentally and emotionally removing themselves from the situation. Pretending that what is happening is not “real” is their method of coping with the situation or experience. They detach. They literally “zone out.”
This detachment response can have implications for the child’s memory creation and retention. Some of these children even experience flashbacks, nightmares and in extreme cases multiple personalities.
Disrupted Attachment Process
We know that attachment is key to the ability of a child to have future emotional relationships. It also provides the basis for other learning, since babies and infants learn best when they feel safe, calm, protected and nurtured by their caregivers.
If the attachment process is disrupted or not developed in a healthy manner, such as in an abusive or neglectful caregiving relationship, then the child’s brain will focus on the day-to-day needs for survival rather than on building the basis for future relational growth. The consequences of disrupted attachment can lead to impairment in several areas of child development.
Disrupted attachment can cause increased susceptibility to stress, excessive seeking for help and dependency, excessive social isolation and an inability to regulate emotions. Such manifestations of disrupted attachment can foster all kinds of emotional deficiencies and behaviors rooted in the child’s inability to derive security and consistency from his caregiver. Therefore, these children may have difficulty forming attachments later in life.
Touching the surface
I have just touched the surface with some consequences of child abuse and neglect. However, it is clear that child abuse and neglect seriously impact a child’s brain development, ability to learn, regulate emotions, and foster healthy relationships as well as many more attributes and capabilities children require to be holistically healthy.
Preventing child abuse and neglect is one of the most important ways we can help children prepare for their future. Helping caregivers create safe environments is key to dealing with this critical social problem.
Gerry Vassar, President/CEO, Lakeside Educational Network