How Child Abuse Changes the Brain

child abuse

The trauma of child abuse can result in changes in the brain during a period of life that’s critical for development. These changes are significant enough to have physical, emotional, and psychological effects that can last into adulthood. 

If you experienced abuse or neglect as a child, your brain might have become wired for fear, anxiety, and stress. And disorders such as anxiety, depression, or addiction can surface later in life. But recovery from the emotional aftermath of child abuse is possible with the right support and treatment.

Types of Abuse Children Experience

Abuse and neglect are two of the most common Adverse Childhood Experiences, which are traumatic experiences that happen before the age of 18. Experts estimate that 14% to 43% of children experience at least one traumatic event. How does physical abuse affect a person mentally? These experiences harm a child’s physical and mental health and create issues that last into adulthood.

Examples of childhood abuse include:

  • Neglect. When caregivers don’t meet a child’s physical, emotional, and social needs. Failing to ensure a safe and healthy upbringing.
  • Physical Abuse. Non-accidental physical harm caused by hitting, punching, kicking, shaking, beating, burning, or throwing. 
  • Emotional Abuse. Causing intentional emotional pain and distress through threats, insults, humiliation, rejection, and inciting fear.
  • Sexual Abuse. Any sexual contact with a child, such as inappropriate touch, sexual acts, or rape.

Child abuse often occurs repeatedly and can involve more than one type. It’s a method of asserting power and control over a minor.

How Child Abuse Effects the Brain

How does abuse affect the brain? Childhood is a pivotal time for brain development. Neurological growth is an even more vital and complex process than physical growth for children. The effects on physical abuse and neglect can disrupt this development. Many scientific studies have shown that childhood abuse can result in significant changes in brain structure.

Ways in which child abuse changes the brain:

  • Decreases the Corpus Callosum. This pathway transmits messages between the two hemispheres of the brain. The corpus callosum is critical to motor coordination, cognitive performance, and social skills.
  • Decreases the Hippocampus. The hippocampus is the part of the brain used for learning and memory. It also plays a part in conflict processing and emotional regulation.
  • Causes Overactivity in the Amygdala. The amygdala processes emotions and determines responses to stressful or dangerous situations. 
  • Causes Dysfunction in the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis. The HPA plays a central role in stress response.
  • Creates Less Volume in the Prefrontal Cortex. The prefrontal cortex affects behavior, perception, emotional balance, and social regulation.
  • Reduces the Volume of the Cerebellum. This part of the brain controls motor skills and coordination.

In short, child abuse affects how a child learns to respond to situations. It also can negatively impact their ability to grow and learn.

The Impact of Child Abuse

So what exactly do these neurological changes mean for children? The different parts of the brain interact in complex ways. And any changes in their structure or function can significantly impact emotions, behavior, and social function.

Potential effects of child abuse and brain changes include:

  • Hyperarousal and Hypervigilance. Being unable to relax. Always alert, no matter what the situation. 
  • Excessive and Constant Fear. Struggling to differentiate between danger and safety. Constantly on the lookout for potential threats. More emotionally reactive, even to seemingly harmless situations.
  • Challenged by Social Situations. Difficulties relating to other people and reading social cues.
  • Attachment Difficulties. Inability to form healthy relationships. Struggling to trust other people or becoming too dependent on others’ approval.
  • Learning Difficulties. Abuse can lead to diminished executive functioning. Poor memory and cognitive flexibility can reduce academic and professional performance.
  • Delays in Developmental Milestones. Children who experience abuse often reach developmental milestones later, including those related to motor skills and language ability.
  • Low Self-Worth and Self-Esteem. Children often blame themselves for abuse. This self-blame may lead to ongoing feelings of shame and guilt. 
  • Development of Mental Health Disorders. There’s a significant link between child abuse and the development of mental health disorders. Common disorders associated with abuse include social anxiety, depression, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
  • Unresponsive to Positive Feedback. Child abuse can lead to difficulty with reward processing. This response can interfere with motivation.
  • Altered Sensory Experiences. Physical and sexual abuse can alter physical sensations and perceptions. Can also cause changes in pain threshold, particularly in areas of the body affected by abuse.

Carmen Dominguez, Executive Director of Clinical Programming at Integrative Life Center, said, after experiencing abuse, the unconscious brain creates a pattern of fear that becomes a rule for how a child functions throughout their life. These unconscious patterns “continue to shape the perceptions and responses of the brain to new relational experiences,” she said. It becomes difficult for children to learn, adapt, or grow from new or different experiences.

Carmen explains that child abuse causes “a sense of unworthiness and a lack of connection to one’s inherent worth.” It can result in co-dependency because of a preoccupation with external validation. 

“Trauma compromises a person’s ability to engage with others by replacing patterns of connections with patterns of protections.” – Carmen Dominguez, LMHC

How Child Abuse Affects Adults

Child abuse and neglect often have long-term consequences that last into adulthood. These effects can be physical, cognitive, psychological, behavioral, and social. Negative long term abuse is often interlinked and may trigger or worsen each other as time goes on.

Possible effects of child abuse in adults:

  • Mental Health Problems. Adults with a history of child abuse commonly develop mental illnesses such as personality disorders, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, anxiety, and depression.
  • Physical Health Concerns. The increase in stress hormones abuse causes is linked to a higher risk for health concerns including vision problems, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart attack, and migraines.
  • Intergenerational Abuse. Adults who experienced abuse or neglect as children are at increased risk of abusing or neglecting their own children.
  • Unhealthy Attachments. Abuse by a primary caregiver as a child can lead to unhealthy attachment patterns later in life.
  • Addiction. It’s common for adults to turn to drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism to deal with the effects of childhood trauma.
  • Re-Victimization. People who experience abuse as a child are more likely to experience it as an adult. This connection may be due to low self-esteem and the subconscious normalization of violence. 
  • High-Risk Behaviors. These behaviors include a higher chance of arrests, violent behavior, criminal acts, or high-risk sexual behavior.
  • Homelessness. There is a strong association between childhood abuse, neglect, and homelessness.

“Considering that traumatic experiences cause a somatic contraction that shapes a habitual pattern, we see these patterns repeating themselves even when they no longer are useful nor relevant to current experiences,” Dominguez said. “These patterns take the form of an array of intimacy disorders and psychopathologies such as anxiety, depression, PTSD, and substance and process addictions.”

Realizing that something that happened to you as a child still impacts you today can be a lot to process. Dominguez said she sees various reactions to the realization.

“Sometimes a client responds by feeling relieved to find the missing piece of the puzzle. However, what follows is feeling overwhelmed with hurt, shame, and anger. They are left feeling vulnerable and mistrustful and often default to their habitual protective patterns.”

Recovery in Adulthood

The good news is that the effects of childhood abuse and neglect are treatable. Treatment is highly individualized based on the nature of the abuse and your response to it. Most treatment plans involve multiple therapies.

Therapy used in child abuse recovery:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Working with a therapist to identify negative thought patterns and behaviors. Finding ways to change or cope with these. 
  • Dialectical Behavior Therapy. Learning to understand and manage your emotions. Changing your perception of yourself.
  • Somatic Experiencing Therapy. Modifying the trauma-related stress response by learning new skills to promote self-regulation.
  • Exposure Therapy. Being exposed to triggers while learning to remain calm. Can rewire connections in the brain.
  • Family Therapy. Helps to encourage healthy and supportive family relationships.
  • Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing. Allows you to access and process traumatic memories in a healing manner.

Carmen states that information is a vital first step in recovery. 

“Clients benefit from understanding how, in response to developmental trauma, the brain was hijacked and driven into states of chaos or rigidity, and this experience disrupted the relationship with self,” she said.

She also notes that trauma is best treated holistically. 

“The best treatment aims to inspire clients to enter the journey of healing so that they can restore their self-agency. The key to best practices is to inspire clients to re-establish a relationship with their inherent worth. To become curious about who they are beyond their diagnosis.”

How ILC Can Help with Child Abuse Recovery

Child abuse can cause structural and functional changes in the developing brain. And these changes have long-lasting effects that continue into adulthood. Adults who don’t process childhood traumas have a greater chance of developing mental illnesses, physical health problems, and addictions. But childhood abuse doesn’t have to define the rest of your life. Integrative Life Center offers programs for adults to help you heal from childhood abuse or neglect. Contact us today.

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