News Media The Effects of Child Abuse on the Developing Brain If your child has been molested, or you are an adult survivor of child sexual abuse yourself, you may have experienced the effects of child abuse on healthy development without ever understanding why or how these consequences take shape.
While the impact of sexual abuse can take many forms—emotional, social, and also physiological—often victims are simply told to seek professional counseling, without learning what damage may actually have been done. The human brain is the central hub of the nervous system.
You feel fear or panic in situations where you should feel fear and panic. Abuse causes stress for the brain. This degree of nervous response can take its toll.
An overactive stress response inhibits many everyday life functions and can lead to troubles socializing normally with other people. You may even pass up positive events or life-changing encounters thanks to an over-inflated sense of fear. If they hurt themselves, they may not realize it until their condition becomes dangerous. The opposite can also be true: Many adult survivors of mistreatment complain about chronic physical problems where no true cause exists. Brain Structures There are many structures within the human mind that are affected by sexual abuse.
Neurophysiological research on child survivors has been ongoing for over 12 years. In that time, neuroscientists such as Dr. Martin Teicher of Harvard, and Dr. Bruce Perry of the Child Trauma Academy in Houston, have shown direct connections between childhood abuse and abnormal brain development. Researchers have shown damage to the amygdala is behind these out-of-proportion reactions. Childhood sexual abuse also affects other brain structures.
The cortex is responsible for the majority of our rational decision-making, planning, and analytical abilities. The hippocampus is a deep-brain structure that helps process emotions and memories.
These structures work together to help children and adults learn new things. The stress of abuse compromises these parts of the brain. With a damaged ability to learn, it is an uphill battle for abused children and adult survivors alike to learn coping mechanisms and new ways to frame their experiences with or without therapy.
Chemicals inside the brain are crucial for development and are also at risk. The hormone cortisol, for example, is responsible for our stress response.
In the mind of an abused child or adult survivor, cortisol is produced more than in the brains of people with no history of abuse.
Other chemicals specific to the brain neurotransmitters , such as serotonin, epinephrine, and dopamine, help regulate our good moods and sense of accomplishment. Research also shows that victims who were abused by close family members must cope with more negative brain development outcomes than other victims of abuse. Remember that abuse is complex and has a far reach, a reach that starts at the chemical and brain-structure level.
How you cope with your own abuse should also be complex and far-reaching. This being said, the scars and long-term effects of childhood sexual abuse are never fully healed. If you are the adult survivor of sexual abuse, your developing brain structures, and the chemicals they produce, were negatively impacted and fundamentally changed the course of your development.
Children who are victims of sexual abuse are experiencing these negative brain changes every day. The good news is that there are always ways to change how you perceive yourself now, how you remember and cope with events of your past, and therapies and behavioral changes you can take to help you better manage conditions in the future.
If you are a parent whose child is the victim of sexual abuse, know that the earlier you can intervene and get them help, the less severe the effects of their trauma are likely to be. So many long-term conditions, from eating disorders, to severe depression, to PTSD, stem from alterations of brain structures and chemistry. Learning where they come from can give you a new perspective on abuse and new ideas of how best to cope.
Early awareness and prevention are still the best courses of action, as is sharing your own experiences with a supportive community. How have you coped? Please let us know in the comments below, and follow this link for more specific information on how sexual abuse affects brain development.