Friday, March 24, 2017

The terrible scars that emotional abuse leaves in children


When we think of abuse and punishment we always associate them with physical violence. However, during childhood is not the physical punishment the most common form of violence but the emotional abuse. And that is as damaging as the beatings.

Emotional abuse takes many forms. In fact, it is so common that it is estimated that one third of children in the world suffer from some form of emotional abuse.

- Negligence. Is it shown by parents who take an emotional distance from their children and do not meet their needs, this way children grow up in a house where don’t have any kind of emotional support.

- Humiliation. The most common form is to embarrass the child when he makes a mistake or don’t understand something, so he’s encouraged to have a negative image of himself.

- Denigration. When parents belittle interests, opinions and wishes of their children, conveying the idea that they are not important or worthy of being taken into account.

- Pressure. When parents press exaggerately their children because they meet their expectations, regardless of their abilities, needs and desires.

Emotional abuse is more harmful than the physical one

Psychologists of the University of Minnesota and McGill studied 2,292 children who took part in a summer camp and followed them for a period of 20 years. When the study began the children were between 5 and 13 years of age.

The researchers analyzed the impact of different forms of child abuse in children. So they discovered that both, physical punishment and emotional abuse, causes psychological damage and there were no differences in responses between girls and boys.

Physical punishment and emotional abuse generated anxiety, depression and low self-esteem. However, psychological abuse was linked to the onset of depressive symptoms, anxiety disorders and addiction, abuse of drugs in adolescence, behavioral problems and learning difficulties.

The scars remain engraved in the brain

Another study conducted at the Faculty of Medicine of the Free University of Berlin analyzed the brains of women who suffered various forms of abuse during childhood. Neuroscientists discovered that the physical and emotional abuse leave many traces in the brain.

While physical abuse mostly affects the motor areas of the cortex, the consequences of the emotional abuse in the brain are even more worrying as it is reflected in the areas of the prefrontal cortex and medial temporal lobe, the decoding and control areas of emotions, of self-image and empathy.

In these areas it was observed a reduction in the volume and synaptic density. This means that these areas were not powered properly during childhood and, consequently, the cortex has not been able to develop a sufficient thickness.

The synaptic density increases with use. When we learn something new, whether it's writing or recognize the emotions of the others, new connections are created in the brain areas related to these skills. Obviously, if during childhood we did not have the opportunity to develop certain skills, these connections are not created.

The emotional abuse alters the patterns of synaptic signals that would normally be activated, making sure that the children, and later the adults, have difficulty managing their emotions, are less empathetic and have a negative image of themselves.

We can’t forget that a secure bond is essential for the proper development of the brain, in particular the areas related to emotional control. A child subjected to continuous stress may suffer a brain damage which will then be difficult to eliminate. Therefore, remember that it is easier to educate children to be emotionally stronger than repair “broken adults”.

Vachon, D. D. et. Al. (2015) Assessment of the Harmful Psychiatric and Behavioral Effects of Different Forms of Child Maltreatment. JAMA Psychiatry; 72(11):1135-1142.
Heim, C. M. et. Al. (2013). Decreased cortical representation of genital somatosensory field after childhood sexual abuse. American Journal of Psychiatry; 170(6): 616-623.


Keep feeding your neurons

The terrible scars that emotional abuse leaves in children

Jennifer Delgado Suárez

Psicologist by profession and passion, dedicated to string words together. Discover my Books


Psychology as you never heard about...

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