How Emotional Abuse in Childhood Changes the Brain By Leonard Holmes, PhD

Martin Dimitrov / Getty Images

Effects on Brain Structure

“Childhood abuse and neglect can have several negative effects on how the brain develops. Some of these are:

. Decreased size of the corpus callosum, which integrates cortical functioning—motor, sensory, and cognitive performances—between the hemispheres

. Decreased size of the hippocampus, which is important in learning and memory

. Dysfunction at different levels of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which is involved in the stress response

. Less volume in the prefrontal cortex, which affects behavior, emotional balance, and perception

. Overactivity in the amygdala, which is responsible for processing emotions and determining reactions to potentially stressful or dangerous situations

. Reduced volume of the cerebellum, which can affect motor skills and coordination


Effects on Behavior, Emotions, and Social Function

Because childhood abuse, neglect, and trauma change brain structure and chemical function, maltreatment can also affect the way children behave, regulate emotions, and function socially. These potential effects include:

. Being constantly on alert and unable to relax, no matter the situation

. Feeling fearful most or all of the time

. Finding social situations more challenging

. Learning deficits

. Not hitting developmental milestones in a timely fashion

. A tendency to develop a mental health condition

. A weakened ability to process positive feedback

These effects can continue to cause issues in adulthood if they’re not addressed. Adults who experienced maltreatment during childhood may have trouble with interpersonal relationships—or they may avoid them altogether.

This outcome could be related to attachment theory, or the idea that our early relationships with caregivers influence the way we relate to people later on in life.

Emotional abuse and neglect don’t allow for a secure attachment to form between a child and caregiver, which causes distress for the child and influences the way they see themselves and others.

4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by rudid96 on May 9, 2022 at 10:46 pm

    Yes, to all of these points. My question is – can these adult children change? Even if it’s later in life? Or, is it simply learning to add an artificial layer over the wounds? Hmmmm…

  2. We can change.

    How much is the quandry

  3. Posted by rudid96 on May 9, 2022 at 11:52 pm

    It’s a hard truth. Some days radical acceptance is easier than on other days.

  4. Who am I?

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