The Effects of Trauma and Chronic Stress

Negative early experiences can also profoundly affect the development of the brain. Unfortunately, child abuse and neglect are pervasive social problems. Each year in the United States there are more than a million substantiated cases – and many more than that probably never come to light. Maltreatment increases a child’s risk of developing depression, self-destructive behavior, eating disorders, attention deficit disorders, drug and alcohol problems, sexual promiscuity, and delinquency. Many researchers believe that these effects can be partly explained by understanding how chaotic, stressful, and traumatic experiences affect brain development.
However, this is a new area of study, with much more that we need to learn. At the moment, we know the most about how traumatic experiences affect the brains of children who develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) (see box below). Similar to adults with PTSD, these children have trouble sleeping, can’t control their memories of the trauma, and seem to be on constant alert (Kaufman & Charney, 1999). Estimates vary from as low as 30% to as high as 90% for the likelihood of developing PTSD for some period following sexual and physical abuse in childhood – and it can have long-lasting effects (Fletcher, 1996). While experiencing the symptoms of PTSD, children have difficulty learning and maintaining positive relationships with family and peers. Although the ability of the brain to put abused children on constant alert may help them to survive in traumatic environments (for example, the battered child may be able to better avoid the abusive father when he is in a bad mood) it exacts a cost, for the child and for society.
It is important that we not assume that a poorly parented or traumatized child is incapable of healthy functioning later in childhood or adolescence. Research on the developing brain suggests continuing opportunity for change into adulthood and provides no evidence that there is some age beyond which intervention will fail to make a difference. In fact, this research provides exciting new clues as to what kinds of therapy might be most helpful for children who have experienced difficult lives (DeBellis, Baum et al., 1999; DeBellis, Keshaven, et al., 1999). Clearly, however, the costs (in human suffering, loss of potential, and real money) of trying to repair, remediate, or heal these children is far greater than the costs of preventing these problems by promoting healthy development of the brain during the first few years of life.

Source – An Ounce of Prevention

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