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Traumatizes Developing Brains

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Abuse traumatizes developing brains

Jim Rives


It would be an understatement to say that the impact of child abuse and neglect on the developing brain is dramatic, far reaching and lifelong. Advances in brain science over the past decade can now map brain activity. We can identify which areas of the brain have specific thought processes as well as behavioral and emotional responses. The unseen consequences -- especially of severe, repeated and prolonged abuse and neglect -- go far beyond the visible scars.


As the brains of young children develop, critical periods occur in which different areas of the brain require specific kinds of stimulation from caregivers if they are to fully mature. Trauma and low levels of proper nurturing occurring during these critical periods is known to have lasting, negative impact on these critical developments that can be lifelong. In later childhood much critical development occurs in the frontal regions of the brain where we know social functioning and the ability to display empathy or caring for those around us and the ability to determine right from wrong occurs. Imaging studies of depressed adults have shown that adults who experienced trauma in early childhood show atrophy in the region of the brain which regulates the stress response and is important for cognitive or educational and vocational functioning.


Changes in brain development also occur in the context of other risk factors, such as depression or substance abuse in the parents and other caretakers.


Children who are abused are more likely to have sleep disturbance, attention problems, difficulties with learning and memory, low academic achievement and attachment disorder.


The child who is traumatized over a long period will develop many difficulties that can persist to adulthood. Chronic abuse is associated with later difficulties in the regulation of behavior and emotions which means that more misbehavior occurs as is seen in delinquency.


Eighty percent of abused children meet the criteria for at least one psychiatric disorder by age 21, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders and suicide attempts.


As adults they are more vulnerable to stress and are more likely to have difficulties with substance abuse.


Nearly one-third will eventually abuse their children.


As a result of difficulties associated with child abuse and neglect, a study in 2001 estimated the direct and indirect costs of child abuse and neglect at $93 million per year.


Greene County has one of the worst child abuse and neglect rates in Missouri, ranking second among counties. These high numbers are due to more than good reporting by a concerned citizenry, as good reporting is not unique to our community. The high rates in Greene County are real and parallel our high rates of domestic violence, substance abuse, poverty and other indicators associated with child abuse and neglect.


The earlier abused children get help, the greater the chance they have to heal and break the cycle of abuse.


Jim Rives, MA, is vice president of corporate development and Sandra L. D'Angelo, PhD, is director of Missouri PIRC at Burrell Behavioral Health.



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