Developmental Effects of Childhood Abuse and Neglect

Talking about abuse and neglect in children is such a difficult topic. Until roughly 20 years ago the professional literature including the DSM took a stance that abuse and neglect were very rare occurrences in the United States. Flickr photo credit Nithi AnandSo it is understandable that as a nation we have little understanding for what constitutes abuse and neglect and even less understanding of their effects on individuals as they move through their lives. Even today, according to Bessel Van Der Kolk M. D., one of the world’s leading authorities on trauma in adults and children, the DSM 5 fails to categorize child neglect as a traumatic life event.

To be clear, we really are talking about trauma in the lives of our children. The Federal Government defines the trauma caused by child abuse as:

“Any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation; or an act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.”

Physical abuse experienced at the hands of a child’s caregiver is often seen as more significant from that of “merely” being neglected. However, recent studies have shown that the long term effects on socialization and emotional regulation can be as severe, if not more severe, in neglected children then they are in those who have suffered physical abuse, and as such neglect falls within the definition of abuse.

Unfortunately abusive and neglectful parents and caregivers are all too common. A household with an alcoholic parent creates an unstable environment where a child may live in constant fear of emotional and physical outbursts. An emotionally or physically abusive parent whose abusive tendencies are witnessed by a child creates in the child a state of constant fear. An unwanted child or one who is emotionally cut off from emotional support, such as touch or caressing, or worse belittled at their every move or word, or a child who is physically harmed or molested by a parent, sibling or caretaker will develop with a tendency to act out and/or repeat the lessons learned from their upbringing.

While everyone responds to trauma in their own way, many observed long-term effects of childhood abuse and neglect are; problems regulating emotions, often displayed by intense emotional outbursts,  the physical sensations of reliving the traumatic events of the past, an inability to trust one’s gut reaction to others, hypersensitivity to criticism, hyperawareness of events occurring around them, a need to control one’s environment, and an inability to connect emotionally despite a deep longing to connect.

Research is beginning to show that an inability to take effective action at the time of the abuse greatly increases the likelihood and severity of traumatic symptoms. Picture a child who is chastised or belittled every time he talks at dinnertime. The child’s inability to interact might lead to fear, to paralysis, to despondency. Effective action against a stronger and quicker parent is not an option without a protector in the house.

Most importantly, feeling listened to and understood creates positive pathways in the brain. Being able to communicate feelings and thoughts, and being recognized for them reinforces an ability to make judgements and trust one’s gut instincts. In contrast, being shut down or criticized for one’s thoughts and feelings no matter their content kills the spirit, and leaves the individual with no internal measure of what works and what doesn’t. Individuals with the latter life experience often have an underdeveloped sense of empathy, yet they continuously turn to others for validation of their opinions or ideas. This dichotomy sends very mixed signals to those around them tending to create a less, not more, controlled environment.

Therapists that combine movement, art, music and other creative approaches to therapy, such as yoga, physical movement, EMDR are making emotional connections and building healing therapeutic rapport with their clients. Couple the traditional therapeutic session with simple movement such as playing catch or mimicking movements can help individuals learn to control their own physiology and from there, their reactions to outside triggers and negative stimulations.  The therapist’s role is to help the individual access the emotional brain and become familiar with one’s emotional side, to take effective physical and emotional action to rewrite the brain’s pathways to begin to fill in the gaps in positive learning that can most benefit the individual who experienced childhood abuse or neglect.