A boy lived in a family where his nervous mother constantly belittled him, although she took good care of him in terms of his physical health, food, hygiene, and medical care. He grew up feeling worthless and this affected his career and some relationships, as is the case with many children who were victims of abuse in childhood and adolescence.
Several scientific studies have shown that emotional abuse, abandonment, and emotional traumas in childhood can cause changes in the brain that will result in psychological difficulties for these individuals as they reach adulthood. Some may develop psychological disorders and even abuse substances such as alcohol, medication, and illicit drugs. Emotional and physical abuse against children can include cursing, threatening to harm the child physically, doing things that scare the child, hitting, belittling, and devaluing the child.
One of the mistakes of parents or caregivers of a child is neglect, which means failing to meet the child’s emotional needs. Neglect can happen when the father is excessively involved in work and neglects the family or when the mother is obsessed with romances or her own appearance, leaving the children in second or third place.
Taking good care of children involves believing in them, making time to play with them, taking them to the playground, making sincere compliments on their accomplishments, no matter how small, fighting to keep the family united, supporting children in their difficulties at school, in social interactions, and having a genuine love for children, sincerely wanting them to be successful in their tasks.
The brain of children is rapidly developing and things like early exposure to electronic screens and emotionally traumatic experiences in the family, such as the presence of a drug-addicted father or mother, divorce, and constant fighting, harm the children’s brain development, which later may favor the emergence of anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, personality disorder, among others.
Dr. Martin Teicher and colleagues at Harvard Medical School’s McLean Hospital and Northeastern University studied the relationship between abuse and brain structure, using MRI scans to discover structural brain changes among young adults who suffered abuse or neglect in childhood.
They found differences in nine brain regions in those who suffered childhood traumas, more present in brain regions that help balance emotions, impulses, and thinking. Some of the negative effects on the brain development victims of abuse and neglect in childhood are:
- decreased size of the corpus callosum, which is a brain structure linked to motor, sensory, and cognitive performance, connecting the left and right hemispheres;
- decreased size of the hippocampus, which is an important area in learning and memory;
- less volume in the prefrontal cortex, in the forehead region, which affects behavior, emotional balance, and perception, among other functions.
Child abuse and neglect affect the way the brain’s chemistry works, damaging children’s behavior, how they deal with emotions, and their social interactions. Children who have emotionally uncontrolled parents may often be in a state of alert, have difficulty relaxing, feel afraid most of the time, and have learning difficulties.
According to attachment theory, when parents abuse or neglect their children, it harms the formation of a secure attachment between the child and their caregiver, causing distress in the child and influencing how the child sees himself and others.
Child abuse also disrupts the emotional image that children build about God, as one thing is what one thinks God is, and another is how one feels about him. If the relationship of parents with their children is traumatic, predominantly neglectful and abusive, they may come to feel that God is the same way, even if they learn rationally in their religion that God is good.
Studies have shown that children who have suffered emotional abuse or neglect in childhood may later present:
- lack of emotional control
- feelings of devaluation
- automatic negative thoughts and
- difficulty dealing with stressful situations in adulthood.
The severity of the emotional disorder due to emotional suffering in childhood depends on the frequency of the traumas, the child’s age when it happened, who the abuser was, whether or not the child had a trustworthy and loving adult in their life, the duration of the abuse, the type and severity of the abuse, whether or not there was help for the child in the face of the abuse, among other factors, such as the emotional sensitivity of the child.
Adults who were victims of childhood abuse who developed emotional disorders can be treated with individual psychotherapy and, in some cases, with medication. There are different types of psychological therapy to help adults who have suffered or are suffering the consequences of child abuse, such as Exposure Therapy, which involves interacting with something that normally causes fear while gradually learning to stay calm.
Also there is family therapy, which is a psychological treatment aimed at improving relationships within the entire family and creating a better and more supportive home environment. The consultation with the family therapist happens with all members of that family nucleus at the same time.
In psychotherapy, the person can also learn to become more aware of their thoughts and feelings and be instructed on how to regulate their emotions and face stressors in a better way.
Trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy focuses on helping people learn new coping skills, restructuring negative thoughts, regulating mood and overcoming trauma.
Rather than treating traumas caused by child abuse, it is better to prevent them from happening. This is done with parents who are aware of the impact of their words and actions towards their children, who are concerned with learning to manage their own dysfunctional thoughts and disturbed feelings, so they can offer better emotional education to their children.
Parents need to remember that their children did not ask to be born and deserve to be treated well. It is also important to consider that children are not to blame for the suffering that their parents had in their childhood, and that, therefore, these parents need to control themselves so as not to repeat the same mistakes that occurred in the past in their family of origin. Think about it. May God help you control your past suffering so as not to repeat it in the present. Your child deserves it.
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Dr. Cesar Vasconcellos de Souza is working as a psychiatrist and international speaker. He is author of 3 books, columnist of the health magazine “Vida e Saúde” for 25 years, and has a regular program on the “Novo Tempo” TV channel.
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