Neglect, physical abuse, and sexual abuse have an immediate and long-term effects on a child’s development. The long-term effects of abuse and neglect of a child can be seen in psychiatric disorders, increased rates of substance abuse, and relationship difficulties. Child abuse and neglect is a huge problem. People that abuse are people who have been abused and neglected themselves. There are links between neglect and abuse and later psychological, emotional, behavioral, and interpersonal disorders. The basis for this linkage is the impact that abuse and neglect have on brain development.
Researchers have found important links between interpersonal experiences and neurobiological development. Children who have been sexually abused are at significant risk of developing anxiety disorders (2. 0 times the average), major depressive disorders (3. 4 times average), alcohol abuse (2. 5 times average), drug abuse (3. 8 times average), and anti-social behavior (4.
3 times average). Generally the left hemisphere of the brain is the site of language, motor activity on the right side of the body, and logical thought based on language. The right hemisphere of the brain is responsible for motor activity on the left side of the body, context perceptions, and holistic perception. The orbito-frontal cortex (the part of the brain directly behind the eyes) is responsible for integrating emotional responses generated in the limbic system with higher cognitive functions, such as planning and language, in the cerebral cortex’s prefrontal lobes. The left orbito-frontal cortex is responsible for memory creation while the right orbito-frontal cortex is responsible for memory retrieval.
Healthy functioning requires an integrated right and left hemisphere. A substantial number of synaptic connections among brain cells develop during the first year of life. An integrated brain requires connections between the hemispheres by the corpus callosum. Abused and neglected children have smaller corpus callosum than non-abused children. Abused and neglected children have poorly integrated cerebral hemispheres.
This poor integration of hemispheres and underdevelopment of the orbitofrontal cortex is the basis for such symptoms as difficulty regulating emotion, lack of cause-effect thinking, inability to accurately recognize emotions in others, inability of the child to articulate the child’s own emotions, an incoherent sense of self and autobiographical history, and a lack of conscience. The brains of abused and neglected children are not as well integrated as the brains of non-abused children. This helps explain why abused and neglected children have significant difficulties with emotional regulation, integrated functioning, and social development. Conscience development and the capacity for empathy are largely functions of the orbito-frontal cortex. When development in this area of the brain is hindered, there are important social and emotional difficulties.
It is very interesting that the orbito-frontal cortex is sensitive to face recognition and eye contact. Abused and neglected children frequently have disorders of attachment because of their birth-parents lack of sensitive responsive interactions with the child. Early interpersonal experiences have a profound impact on the brain because the brain circuits responsible for social perception are the same as those that integrate such functions as the creation of meaning, the regulation of body states, the regulation of emotion, the organization of memory, and the capacity for interpersonal communication and empathy. Stressful experiences that are overtly traumatizing or chronic cause chronic elevated levels of neuroendocrine hormones. High levels of these hormones can cause permanent damage to the hippocampus, which is critical for memory. 5 Based on this we can assume that psychological trauma can impair a person’s ability to create and retain memory and impede trauma resolution.
Abused and neglected children exhibit a variety of behaviors that can lead to any number of diagnoses. However, the effect of early abuse and neglect on the child can be seen in just a few critical areas of development. These areas include emotional regulation, response flexibility, a coherent integrated sense of self across time, the ability to engage in affect attunement with significant others (empathy and emotional connectedness), and conscience development. The effects of early maltreatment on a child’s development are profound and long lasting. It is the impact of maltreatment on a child’s developing brain that causes effects seen in a wide variety of domains including .