In case you’ve been unaware of the last several years of research from all over the world, with children, adolescents and adults, some after 40 years since the trauma, they all come to the same conclusions: those who suffer childhood trauma, whether through abuse, neglect, witnessing domestic or neighborhood violence or being bullied by siblings or peers, have observable, lifelong negative consequences to not only our psychological but to our physical health. Traumas include war and threats of warlike activity, sudden natural disasters, neighborhood or school-site gang warfare and violent encounters of other types that children and teens experience, even if “only” as witnesses.
image from http://www.acestoohigh.com
Is there any “good news”? Only a bit.
- When responsible adults who have the power to act curtail or stop the abuse or trauma early on, some of the effects may be reversible.
- If adults whom the victim/survivor encounters treat the traumatized child, teen or adult consistently and appropriately by supplying effective psychological therapy and immediate environmental improvements, an almost-complete recovery is possible.
- When the child reports the bullying or abuse or reveals that domestic violence or parental neglect is occurring and the listening adults immediately take the child’s reports seriously followed by taking obvious supportive, preventive and/or protective actions, these responses also improve the child’s chances of developing fewer problems later in life.
Links to some of the research articles recently published are below. My favorite points are in this post. Thanks to all the researchers, reporters/journalists and participants in these studies who made these understandings possible.
May all abuse, neglect, bullying, domestic violence and other causes of childhood trauma CEASE in our lifetimes.
May all children grow up and be educated in safe, healthy environments.
image from http://www.earlytraumagrief.anu.edu.au
Sources and quotes:
I. Abuse Casts a Long Shadow by Changing Children’s Genes
By Eleanor Nelsen
“For abused children, that trauma is just the beginning. Most will likely struggle well into adulthood.”
image from http://www.ascd.org
“Living with an abusive parent has increased their risk for depression and other psychological problems while decreasing their chances of successfully maintaining close relationships. Even physical ailments, like type 2 diabetes and heart disease, are more likely in adults who were abused as kids. Early abusive experiences can leave a stubborn imprint on those children’s brains and bodies, and Seth Pollak, a professor at the University of Wisconsin and head of the study, wanted to know how, exactly, abuse was changing these children’s bodies on a cellular level.”
“… people’s experiences exert a strong influence on their biology by silencing genes or turning them back on, significantly changing the way a cell functions without changing its DNA sequence. It’s a phenomenon known as epigenetics.”
“’Epigenetics makes the genes tick,’ explains Moshe Szyf, a professor of genetics and pharmacology at McGill University. Epigenetic changes modify DNA to keep genes from being expressed, and they can explain dramatic differences between cells with identical DNA—for example, how stem cells can turn into either liver cells or heart cells, or why only one of a set of identical twins gets cancer. It’s also, Pollak found, why children who grow up in abusive homes have physical and psychological problems that haunt them well into adulthood.”
“‘… something like parenting, parental care, was flipping the switch.’… trauma might be turning this stress-management gene off…”
“…for children in abusive homes, who are in threatening situations every day, having more cortisol floating around isn’t necessarily bad—at first. ‘You may need to remain vigilant more often. You may need to flip into vigilant state more easily. That’s keeping you alive under harsh conditions, but it’s also making it really hard for you to function.’”
“…The long-term results are the chronic psychological problems like anxiety and depression and chronic physical problems like heart disease and type II diabetes, which often surface years later in victims of childhood abuse.”
“… Having too few receptors for cortisol keeps the immune system from learning to manage inflammation and infections, helping explain why children in abusive homes seem to get sick more often, and are at a higher risk for chronic health problems.”
“’The idea that these things aren’t fixed is really encouraging,’ Pollak says.”
II. Bullying affects children’s long-term health, study shows
“In the first study of its kind to assess the compounding effects of bullying over 5 years, researchers have found that a child experiences more severe and lasting health implications the longer he or she is bullied, suggesting that early interventions could reverse the “downward health trajectory” that victims of bullying may experience.”
“At any age, bullying was linked with worse mental and physical health, more depressive symptoms and a lower sense of self-worth. And students who reported chronic bullying also experienced more difficulties with physical activities like walking, running or playing sports.”
“‘Our research shows that long-term bullying has a severe impact on child’s overall health, and that its negative effects can accumulate and get worse with time,’ says Bogart.”
“She calls for more intervention around bullying, ‘because the sooner we stop a child from being bullied, the less likely bullying is to have a lasting, damaging effect on his or her health down the road,’ she adds.”
“…recent events may be more important than distant ones to a child’s health, but the team notes that health consequences “compound over time” and may stay even after the bullying has ceased.”
“… their findings emphasize the importance of stopping bullying early and continuously intervening to help with the lingering effects.”
Sally Ember wholeheartedly recommends the nonprofit USA-based organization, Community Matters, for their advising and trainings for improving school climate through research-based and clinically-proven effective bullying prevention and education programs, “Safe School Ambassadors,” for youth, school staff and parents.
Contact them (they offer programs around the world): 707-823-6159 or http://www.community-matters.org
“Medical News Today reported on a 2013 study published in the journal Psychological Science, which suggested victims of childhood bullying fare poorly in adulthood. Findings from the study showed that individuals bullied in childhood were more likely to have a psychiatric disorder, smoke, struggle to keep work and had difficulty maintaining friendships.”
III. BULLYING BY SIBLINGS ANYTHING BUT HARMLESS
compiled in 2013
While other forms of bullying are commonly taken seriously and relatively well-researched, bullying between siblings often gets ignored or minimized. However, two recent studies call attention to the potential pitfalls of discounting the effects of sibling bullying. One of these studies indicates that children who bully their brothers or sisters take this activity less seriously than other bullying behaviors, while the other study indicates that sibling bullying can cause just as much mental health harm as other forms of bullying.
image from http://www.psychiatrictimes.com
“…childhood bullying substantially increases the chances that an individual will develop a diagnosable mental illness during adulthood. These same risks also apply in magnified form to bully-victims, a term used to describe bullying victims who go on to perpetrate acts of bullying on others.”
“… more siblings (85 percent) actually identify themselves as bullies than as bullying victims (75 percent)….[T]his finding points toward a widespread childhood acceptance of sibling bullying as a non-consequential behavior that has no meaningful impact on the well-being of affected individuals. This acceptance also almost certainly reflects the attitudes of the larger culture toward the seriousness of sibling bullying.”
“…both relatively moderate and relatively severe bullying produce a decline in mental health marked by things such as anxiety, depressed moods and uncontrolled outbursts of anger. Moderate physical bullying by a sibling has a greater mental health effect on younger children than on older children. However, the authors found that all other forms of sibling bullying have an equally negative effect on both younger children and teenagers.”
“… current social tendencies to downplay or dismiss the importance of sibling bullying contribute to the problem and seriously increase the chances that sibling bullying and other forms of bullying will continue to diminish the psychological/emotional well-being of large numbers of individuals.”
“…pediatricians can help decrease the impact of sibling bullying by looking for signs of such bullying in their patients on an annual basis.”
IV. The neurobiological effects of childhood maltreatment: An often overlooked narrative related to the long-term effects of early childhood trauma?
by Jennifer Delima and Graham Vimpani
“… some current societal dysfunction may well be an overlooked significant consequence of childhood maltreatment, with its associated trauma effect upon the developing brain. These changes prevent and impair the ability to remediate disadvantage and its effects through purely social policy and justice measures.”
Acts of commission (actions against the child)
Physical– The child is subject to disciplinary action by his/her caregiver(s), with resultant bruising, severe pain, temporary loss of mobility, scars, burns, shaking etc. This may lead in some cases to more serious and life-threatening injuries, including inflicted brain injury.
Sexual – This involves the sexual abuse or exploitation of the child and /or exposing them to sexual acts.
Emotional – The child is subject to repeated verbal abuse, being sworn at or receiving hurtful and demeaning comments about his/herself. This form of maltreatment also includes the child hearing about violent acts perpetrated upon a significant attachment figure for the child.
Acts of omission (actions of failed care)
Witnessing family violence – The child hears or watches aggressive verbal altercations and/or physical violence.
Neglect – This type of maltreatment ranges from failing to provide basic food, shelter, clothing and care (including relevant medical care) to exposure to harmful substances. This is often labelled as “environmental circumstance”, but studies of documented behavioural features and neuro-imaging tests demonstrate that the resultant brain injury patterns are similar to those seen in children exposed to acknowledged trauma and maltreatment.
Sources: Chrousos & Gold (1992); De Bellis (2002); MacMillan et al. (2009)
“Neglectful acts have also been extended to include the exposure of children to cigarette smoke when they are motor vehicle passengers, although this does not yet apply to the unborn foetus. Exposing foetuses to harmful agents (teratogens) could also be regarded as neglectful when there is a known causal relationship between the substance and resultant structural malformations to the developing foetus (e.g., continued thalidomide use despite knowledge of its effect on foetal limb growth, or continued alcohol use with knowledge of its causality in foetal alcohol spectrum disorder). Such actions are neglectful regardless of the intent of the child’s parent, caregiver or other responsible adults.”
“The common factors in trauma or maltreatment that adversely affect early brain development appear to be those events and conditions in which the child experiences or repeatedly experiences, in a prolonged and uncontrolled manner, circumstances that they perceive as being likely to be significantly life threatening for themselves.”
They can use “non-invasive static-scan neuro-imaging tools, such as MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), DTI (diffusion tensor imaging) and SPECT (single-photon emission computed tomography). More recently, assessment with ‘functional MRI’ (fMRI) has provided even further evidence of the impact that maltreatment has upon a child’s brain, including the assessment of not only structural changes but also the dynamic processes occurring within the brain as the child recalls or listens to an account of the varying types of maltreatment to which they have been previously exposed.”
“Maltreatment that comprises severe, prolonged and uncontrolled life stressors activates a prolonged biological stress response. This response is mediated through the limbic-hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, a system that describes the brain’s interaction with the peripheral body through neural (sympathetic nervous system) and hormonal (adrenal gland) tissues that regulate the body’s response to perceived longer acting stressors (infection, trauma, neglect, substance exposure, etc.).”
“The developing brain is particularly vulnerable to stress, especially with respect to the pre-frontal cortex, hippocampus and corpus callosum. Through prolonged activation of the biological stress response system, structural and functional brain changes occur. The behaviours resulting from chronic stress include poor self-regulation, increased impulsive behaviours, and emotional responses such as high levels of experienced anxiety, aggression and suicidal tendencies and, in some, a learned helplessness from the constant impairment of self-regulation.”
“…the response to chronic stress impairs the function of noradrenaline and dopamine within the limbic system and that this may account for the typical post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms of persistent hyper-arousal and hyper-vigilance that continues to occur after the trauma, despite resolution of the initiating experience. These neurotransmitters also interact with the serotonin system to modify mood and anxiety symptoms.”
“The impact of maltreatment on the brain – structural, functional and behavioural – has been shown to worsen the longer the duration of trauma experience and the younger the age of onset of the trauma experience.”
Substance misuse and dependence
“Early onset adult depressive, suicidal and personality disorders have also been shown to be significantly increased in those with documented histories of childhood maltreatment….This has been postulated to be the outcome of cortisol hyper-secretion.”
“… ‘antisocial’ personality disorder is a more frequent occurrence in those with a history of physical abuse and/or neglect, whereas “borderline” personality disorder is more frequently associated with childhood sexual abuse.”
“Cognitive development and academic performance are also adversely affected by childhood exposure to violence. MRI studies show that exposure to violence is associated with children having smaller intracranial, cerebral and prefrontal cortex volumes, with particular effects on prefrontal white matter, temporal lobe volumes and the corpus callosum….these children have been found to suffer increased levels of depression, dissociation and both externalising (aggression, self-harming) and internalising (depression, anxiety) symptoms.”
“…male children are more vulnerable to the consequences of maltreatment, and this is reflected in changed brain structure….The corpus callosum volume in males is especially decreased in the isthmus region of the corpus callosum, which appears to facilitate more externalising behavioural symptoms of aggression and suicidality.”
“A similar decrease in volume is noted in the superior temporal gyrus and hippocampus, with a resultant observed deficit in executive function ability and sustained attention and focus, a limited verbal response ability, and poor short-term memory and capacity for future planning. Also observed has been a decreased ability to learn through both motor and non-motor means. Further, the cerebellum is generally decreased in volume in these children, with an observed attendant behavioural pattern of having difficulty sleeping, poor concentration and general irritability.”
“Maltreatment in early childhood has also been shown to result in adverse adult onset physical health; in particular, chronic disease and reproductive and adult sexual health problems….childhood abuse and exposure to domestic violence can lead to numerous differences in the structure and physiology of the brain, which affect multiple human functions and behaviours.”
“…not all children are adversely affected in this way. Some of this resilience may be attributed to the ‘neuroplasticity’ of the brain; that is, the ability of neural tissue to modify brain function and response, so enabling a different response to an experienced memory. Neuroplasticity occurs as a result of some synaptic pathways being enhanced rather than others following activities that stimulate specific sensory, motor and language development. This is especially seen in children under the age of 7 years and continues to a lesser degree into the mid-teenage years, but it decreases significantly around the third decade of life, when the brain has reached maturity with completed myelination.”
“…appropriate and early remedial therapy provided to children who have suffered maltreatment (either in utero, or during their childhood), may mitigate many of the adverse behavioural, learning and cognitive effects of the maltreatment.”
“Early identification of such affected children would permit the implementation of remedial social supports, education and behavioural treatment measures to enhance the modifying mechanism of neuroplasticity to reduce the functional neurobiological effects of child maltreatment. Additionally, early modification of the child’s environment to decrease the biological stress response may also assist the expression of the child’s genetic make-up (epigenetics).”
“Elevated cortisol biological stress responses in children and adolescents reflect the prolonged stimulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, which normally is an acute stress response system. This prolonged stimulation in turn adversely affects physical and mental health and wellbeing, resulting in conditions such as reduced immune function, cardiovascular disease, dysthymia (persistent mild depression), major depression, oppositional defiant disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Furthermore, persistent exposure to stress results in damped responsiveness to new stressors.”
“…females tend to express their responses to maltreatment through internalising symptoms such as depression, anxiety and eating disorders, compared to males, who express themselves more through externalising symptoms such as aggression, harm directed at others and suicidality.”
” [However], the younger child tends to display a similar level of distress regardless of the magnitude of stress to which they are responding.”
“…not all children are adversely affected by maltreatment, and this is hypothesised to reflect their access to appropriate environmental and familial supports at the time of the event. Additionally, differential epigenetic responses to environmental circumstances may also play a part. If the biological stress response is rapidly curtailed through appropriate support, and safety and security measures are instigated, then structural changes within the developing child’s brain are likely to be minimised, along with the adverse behavioural consequences.”
“The effects of maltreatment on children extend further than the children and their respective families to affect the wider community. The learning and cognitive deficits observed in these children are then reflected in their poorer educational and life skills development, particularly their capacity for self-regulation. This in turn affects the community’s ability to control violence and ensure an environment that promotes individual safety.”
“Child maltreatment eventually also affects the broader society with which the child’s community articulates. When adults in these communities have also been affected in their own childhoods by significant and chronic maltreatment, and witnessed or experienced personal, family and community violence, as well as engaging in chronic alcohol misuse, the intergenerational “cycle of poverty and community dysfunction” continues; the adults who would normally be responsible for providing the leadership, supervision and caring roles are themselves limited by their own reduced cognitive capacity and executive function ability.”
“Identification of these children through early and appropriate screening … and targeted remedial treatment has the potential to mitigate some of the cognitive, learning and behavioural difficulties that may arise, such as poor literacy, unemployment, incarceration, childhood pregnancy, or substance dependence.”
“Where brain injury results from maltreatment, current social and justice strategies, often introduced relatively late in the individual’s life, are by themselves of little benefit in achieving remediation, as the damage to neuropsychological functioning may be too entrenched to be overcome. This is especially so as most of the remedial programs available commence after the age of 7 years, thus missing the most sensitive ‘neuroplastic developmental’ period.”
“Providing a safe environment for children and their families will enable the next generation of children to achieve their maximum adult potential through normal neurobiological development.”
V. Impact of childhood bullying still evident after 40 years
This study was funded by the British Academy and the Royal Society.
“Dr. Ryu Takizawa, lead author of the paper from the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London, says: ‘Our study shows that the effects of bullying are still visible nearly four decades later. The impact of bullying is persistent and pervasive, with health, social and economic consequences lasting well into adulthood.’”
“Individuals who were bullied in childhood were more likely to have poorer physical and psychological health and cognitive functioning at age 50. Individuals who were frequently bullied in childhood were at an increased risk of depression, anxiety disorders, and suicidal thoughts.”
image from http://www.firstcovers.com
“Individuals who were bullied in childhood were also more likely to have lower educational levels, with men who were bullied more likely to be unemployed and earn less. Social relationships and well-being were also affected. Individuals who had been bullied were less likely to be in a relationship, to have good social support, and were more likely to report lower quality of life and life satisfaction.”
“…’what happens in the school playground can have long-term repercussions for children. Programmes to stop bullying are extremely important, but we also need to focus our efforts on early intervention to prevent potential problems persisting into adolescence and adulthood.’”