All forms of childhood abuse affect the brain

Research over the past few years has established that early life experiences can have a lasting physiological effect on a person's brain.

Many studies have examined the relationship between childhood abuse or neglect and resulting changes in the way the brain deals with stress, as well as the increased risk of developing psychiatric conditions such as depression and anxiety later in life.

I have talked about this in a past column, adults who were abused as children have brains that look and function differently from the brains of individuals who did not experience abuse.

Studies have found abnormally elevated hormonal response to stress among adults who were abused as children. In addition to elevated stress hormones which could cause greater vulnerability to psychiatric disorders, studies have also found abnormal development of the brain's hippocampus and other brain structures as well as stunted neuronal pathways within the brain. Further, severely neglected children tend to have smaller than average brains with underdeveloped areas in the cortex.

All of this combines to prove that our early childhood experiences are critical in the development and function of our brains, and that these early years will affect us for our entire lives.

Recent studies have examined the effects of varying kinds of childhood abuse. Until fairly recently it has been assumed that physical or sexual abuse are more damaging than verbal abuse. However, an article published recently in the American Journal of Psychiatry examined the relative harm done by different types of abuse and has found verbal aggression also leaves a lasting impression.

Unfortunately, verbal abuse is the most prevalent form of abuse in our society. A survey of American parents found that 63 per cent reported one or more instances of verbal aggression such as swearing at or insulting their child. A surprisingly high number considering this was discovered in a survey where parents were reporting their own behaviours.

One recently published study asked whether childhood verbal abuse in the absence of other forms of abuse has a discernible effect on the brain.

This study found that verbal abuse is associated with moderate to large effects that are comparable to witnessing domestic violence or non-familial sexual abuse and larger than those associated with physical abuse.

Maternal verbal abuse during childhood is associated with higher risk for the development of borderline, narcissistic, obsessive-compulsive and paranoid personality disorders later in life.

These findings suggest that exposure to verbal aggression, like other forms of abuse, may be a stressor that affects the development of the brain and results in psychiatric illness among susceptible individuals. Along with affecting brain development, experiencing verbal abuse also teaches negative interpersonal communication, which is carried into future life and relationships.

Well over half of the subjects in this study reported a history of more than one form of childhood abuse and this study found that exposure to multiple forms of abuse had the largest effect on later life function, and was greater than the sum of the parts.

It appears that the greater the number of childhood abuse experiences, the higher the risk of negative health outcomes in adulthood. We should not underestimate the serious impact of abuse on the welfare of children and future adults, and this study highlights the importance of not underestimating the impact of verbal abuse.

If you are experiencing abuse or have witnessed it, seek help. Speak with the police, a counselor or doctor. Abuse is everyone's business and must be stopped.


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