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Abuse-Related Trauma and Brain Development

"A growing body of evidence indicates maltreatment can alter brain functioning and consequently affect mental, emotional, and behavioral development."

—Children's Bureau, U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services

We know that the developing brains of children are affected by emotionally traumatic events, such as sexual abuse, as well as by physical injury.

In fact, there is a whole new area of study called Developmental Traumatology that looks at the psychobiological effects of abuse. This is a complicated area of study because it involves children's genetic makeup, their psychosocial environment, and the many factors that contribute to vulnerability or resilience at various stages.

We know that trauma in children is often chronic and has a wide range of effects, most notably on attachment and emotional (and therefore behavioral) dysregulation. The Santa Barbara Graduate Institute Center for Clinical Studies and Research explains:

  • Brain change is a social process triggered by physical and emotional experience.
  • Young children depend on primary caretakers for brain regulation and development. Therefore, treating the parent is the most efficient way to treat the child.

The study of brain changes that may be caused by childhood trauma is advancing all the time. In the meanwhile, assessing whether a child or teen is lagging developmentally and how the family is responding to the child's needs can help us to design critical interventions that may counteract the damage. Therapists' careful attention to nonverbal communication and to helping the child regulate emotion may also help with supporting brain health.

We need to focus on providing appropriate mental health treatment, developing support for parents and caregivers, and creating healthy and safe environments for children and teens.


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Reviewed: October 31st, 2016