The Impact of Child Abuse on the Brain, by Heather Gray

brain-951847_640Children who suffer violence are impacted physically, emotionally, and psychologically. That makes sense, right?

They’re also affected physiologically, though. Everybody’s heard of Fight or Flight Response, right? When a person is faced with something they perceive as a threat, hormones are released into the system and signals start bouncing around the brain
telling the person to flee the situation or to fight the enemy.

So what happens when, during the formative years of a child’s life, the brain is constantly flooded with these hormones and signals because the child is living every single day in a constant state of the Fight or Flight?

The physiology of their brain is altered, and no amount of counseling can undo that damage. I don’t want to diminish the role of counseling, please understand that. Counseling, among other things, helps people learn to cope, to change their behavior, and to move forward. It can’t, however, go back in time and change the chemical firestorm that happens in a developing brain when a child is abused.

The amygdala is the part of the brain that controls the Fight or Flight Response. When a threat is perceived, it sends the signal to the prefrontal cortex that tells it to act. The hippocampus is the voice of reason, though, that makes sure the response is appropriate. If I wake from a nightmare where I’m being chased by an ax murderer, my amygdala is screaming at my prefrontal cortex to run, but my hippocampus is coming along and saying, “No, no. It’s just a dream. Everything’s okay.”

People who have suffered childhood abuse, though, have a weakened relationship between their hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. This means that the voice of reason is often absent when they react to stimuli. Their reaction – be it fight or flight – can often be disproportionate to the situation at hand because the message from the hippocampus simply isn’t getting through. We might say they have a short fuse and are prone to outbursts of anger or overreaction, but regardless of the label we put
on it, the problem isn’t entirely within their control.

As parents, we often despair of ever seeing our hard work pay off. When our child is three years old and having an all-out tantrum on the floor of the grocery store, we wonder where we went wrong and if our child will ever learn. We try to be encouraging, consistent, loving, and firm with our kids, but it can be a decade or more before we see our positive actions pay off.

It can take decades to realize the full impact of childhood abuse, too. Whether that abuse comes in the form of neglect, emotional assault, or physical abuse – the victim may be well into adulthood before they have a solid understanding of just how deeply their childhood has shaped them. In some cases, thanks to denial and compartmentalization, victims may never fully realize it.

What can be done?

Hopefully, in understanding the long-term effects of child abuse on its victims, we will all be motivated to take action.

April is Childhood Abuse Awareness month. In my own small way, I want to help make you more aware of the long-term detrimental effects abuse has on its young victims. In 2013 alone, nearly 700,000 children in America were abused.

What can you do to help? If you see abuse, report it. That’s the easy answer.

For every easy answer, there’s a hard one, though. What else can you do? Mentor someone. Is there a family in your church or life that seems to be struggling? Not all parents have good role models. So step up and be one. Offer support and encouragement to parents who look like they’re reaching the breaking point. Or better yet, offer support an encouragement before they ever
get that far. Be an example of love and patience. Be a listening ear. If you can, give them a break now and then by taking the kids. Offer to help in small ways, but above all, let them know that you care. Invest in the lives of families, and you’ll be doing more than you realize to help prevent the furtherance of child abuse in America.

Sources:

http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2013/11/04/242945454/childhood-maltreatment-can-leave-

scars-in-the-brain

http://www.asca.org.au/WHAT-WE-DO/Resources/General-Information/Impact-on-the-physiology-of-

the-brain

Abused Children May Get Unique Form of PTSD

http://www.asca.org.au/WHAT-WE-DO/Resources/General-Information/Abuse-related-conditions

http://www.nationalchildrensalliance.org/media-room/media-kit/national-statistics-child-abuse


heatherHeather loves coffee, God, her family, and laughter – not necessarily in that order!  She writes approachable characters who, through the highs and lows of life, find a way to love God, embrace each day, and laugh out loud right along with her.  And, yeah, her books almost always have someone who’s a coffee addict.  Some things just can’t be helped.

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