Impacts of child abuse on brain development

Impacts of child abuse on brain development

The earliest years of a child’s life are the most formative stage that plays a crucial role in his/her development. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study of the long-term effects of trauma has also concluded that multiple childhood traumatic events predicted both mental and physical health problems and significantly raised the risk of suicide attempts across the lifespan.

Thanks to neuroimaging techno logy like MRI, researches are able to link brain development with early experiences and effects they have on the child’s mental wellbeing. “There is now scientific evidence of altered brain functioning as a result of early abuse and neglect. This emerging body of knowledge has many implications for the prevention and treatment of child abuse and neglect,” the Child Welfare Information Gateway notes in its April 2015 report, Understanding the Effects of Maltreatment on Brain Development.

How brain develops

Genetics influence to a great extent how a child’s brain develops. Studies say environment and experiences too play a powerful role while the brain is actively developing. This means that all these factors influence the optimum brain development. So what happens if the environment and the experience are not very positive?

Effects of abuse can be based on many factors – whether the maltreatment was continuous or only a one-time incident, the identity of the abuser, severity of maltreatment, where the child was abused, etc. All these experiences negatively affect brain development because it involves changing the structure and chemical process of the brain, as well as emotional and behavioral functioning of the abused child.

This influences the following behavioral and emotional difficulties in children:

Persistent fear

An abused child associates fear caused by the abuser or a particular place the abusing has happened with other similar places and individuals that in reality pose no threat. This is known as generalized fear response, and is a foundation for various anxiety disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The main reason for the inability to distinguish fear and safety comes from the chemical changes in the brain caused by a traumatizing experience.


Exposing a child to chronic stress sensitizes its brain for fear response and create memories that trigger this response subconsciously. Children who have gone through these experiences are highly sensitive even to non-verbal cues, and have a difficult time falling or staying asleep. They are always in a state of alertness, jumpy and monitoring for any signs of a potential threat.

Delayed development

Most of the time abused children don’t have the right support or even opportunity to achieve certain milestones in their development. When children are still young, neuro pathways are formed as expectations of certain experiences. If the parent neglects these emotional, cognitive or social needs, these neuro pathways die away and children miss a very important step in their development.

Complex social interaction

Constant stress can impact brain development in a way that inhibits normal social interaction. Children exposed to toxic stress find it more difficult to interact with others or manage in certain social situations. For example, abused children may misinterpret behavior of their peers and react inappropriately, causing trouble for themselves and people around them.

No response to positive feedback

Maltreated children are less responsive to positive feedback. This means that when they are offered rewards, whether in the form of material or praise, they demonstrate a weak response due to changes in the brain responsible for reward processing.

Children are our future and should be loved, cherished, and supported. If you know someone who needs help, the California Mental Health Helpline can help find effective, medically-proven techniques to deal with mental disorders. Call us today for a referral at 855-559-3923.