What is the Neurobiological Impact of Violence in Childhood?

By guest blogger Caroline Abbott

I came upon some articles recently that describe the neurobiological affects of experiencing violence in childhood.

According to one article, when a child experiences violence, this can actually change the way the child’s brain develops. As a result, some mental health problems that might follow these children later in life are Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). (Teicher, M. H., 2000)

Mental Health Issues in Perspective

Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) includes the following possible symptoms: prolonged sadness or deflated mood, significant changes in weight or appetite, insomnia or hypersomnia, irritability, difficulty in concentration and memory, and even the contemplation of suicide. (American Psychiatric Association, 2000, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Forth Edition, Text Revision. Washington, DC)

Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is characterized by emotional instability, impulsive behavior, abnormal affect, and chronic fear of abandonment, and frequently includes suicidal gestures. Depression is also commonly experienced by patients with BPD. (American Psychiatric Association, 2000Comer, R. J., 2011, Fundamentals of Abnormal Psychology (Sixth ed.), New York, NY: Worth Publishers)

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) occurs after a person suffers a severe trauma, which results in flashbacks, depression, restriction of experienced emotion, anxiety, panic attacks, avoidance of possible triggers, nightmares, sleep disturbances, dissociation, irritability, difficulty with concentration and memory, and hyper-arousal which includes being startled easily. (American Psychiatric Association, 2000)

How Do They Occur

How does experiencing violence as a child put a person at risk for developing these disorders? One of the leading experts in the field, Dr. Martin H. Teicher, hypothesized that the trauma “induces a cascade of effects, including changes in hormones and neurotransmitters that mediate development of vulnerable brain regions.” In other words, when a child experiences violence, hormones are released in their brains that affect the way the brain actually develops. (Teicher, M. H., 2000)

Other research shows that exposure to violence damages a child’s limbic system, which is the part of the brain that controls emotion and survival instincts. When the limbic system is impaired, the child is predisposed to developing PTSD, as well as memory problems, chronic unhappiness, aggression, and violent tendencies toward themselves or others, which are gateways both to MDD and BPD. (Teicher M. H., 2000Spiers, P., Schomer, D., Blume, H., & Mesulam, M., 1985, “Temporolimbic Epilepsy and Behavior.” Principles of Behavioral  Neurology, 289-326; Teicher, M., Glod, C., Surrey, J., & Swett, C., 1993, August 1, “Early Childhood Abuse and Limbic System Ratings in Adult   Psychiatric Outpatients.” The Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical   Neurosciences, 5, 301-306.)

Research also indicates that those who experience violence in early life have difficulty integrating the left and right sides of their brain. The right hemisphere is responsible for processing and expressing negative emotions, whereas the left side keeps emotions in check. When the left side is in charge, people seem positive towards others, while when the right side of their brain is in charge, as in the case of children who see violence, they have a negative view. This explains why they might go from putting someone on a pedestal to being overly critical of the same person without warning – seeing circumstances and people in black and white, rather than through a more balanced and integrated viewpoint that reflects the notion that bad and good coexist.

However, the neurobiological effects of violence in childhood don’t stop there. This experience can also result in a permanently increase in vasopressin (a stress hormone associated with sexual arousal) and decrease in oxytocin (a critical hormone in maintaining monogamous relationships). This may be one possible theory as to why some of these individuals may struggle with interpersonal connections and be predisposed to intense, turbulent relationships that are often short-lived. (Teicher M. H., 2000)

It’s clear that domestic violence in childhood sets children up for depression, borderline disorder, and PTSD later in life, alongside other harmful and potentially life-changing neurobiological effects. No parent wants their child to grow up with long-term problems like these. Plus society as a whole pays the price when they do, because these children and the adults they grow up into are all around us – we encounter them in every facet of our lives and are impacted by their past. We must be fully informed about the ramifications of domestic violence on children to truly grasp and appreciate its full impact, which is often hidden, misunderstood, downplayed or altogether ignored.

I would like to thank Children of Domestic Violence for inviting me to share this guest piece. This is the second piece I’ve written for this site. You can read the first one here.

I target my personal blog most often toward women in domestic violence relationships but I also write about the children who are very much impacted in these relationships as well.

Caroline Abbott
Guest Blogger
www.carolineabbott.com

 

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