How emotional abuse in childhood changes the brain

Emotional abuse and neglect in childhood can cause permanent changes in human brain development. These changes in brain structure seem to be enough to cause psychological and emotional problems in adulthood, such as mental disorders and substance abuse.

Approximately 14% of Americans report that they have experienced emotional abuse or neglect during childhood. Emotional abuse may include:

  • Insulting, insulting or cursing children
  • Threatened to cause physical harm to the child
  • Intimidate or otherwise scare the child

Emotional neglect includes the failure to meet the child’s emotional needs. This may include failure to:

  • Believe in children
  • Build a close family
  • Make children feel special or important
  • provide support
  • Want to make children succeed

How abuse changes brain structure

As children grow up, their brains will experience periods of rapid development. Negative experiences can disrupt these developmental periods, causing later changes in the brain.

Research supports this idea and shows that the time and duration of childhood abuse affects the way it affects these children later in life. For example, long-term abuse in early childhood can lead to particularly unfavorable results.

Dr. Martin Teicher and his colleagues at McLean Hospital, Harvard Medical School and Northeastern University used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology to determine the changes in the brain structure of young people who suffered childhood abuse, and studied the relationship between abuse and brain structure. This relationship or negligence.

They found that there are significant differences in nine brain regions between people who have experienced childhood trauma and those who have not experienced childhood trauma. The most obvious changes occur in areas of the brain that help balance emotions and impulses and self-conscious thinking. The results of the study show that people who have experienced childhood abuse or neglect are indeed at increased risk of mental health problems in the future.

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Effects on brain structure

Childhood abuse and neglect can have some negative effects on brain development. Some of them are:

  • The corpus callosum becomes smaller, it integrates the cortical functions between the cerebral hemispheres-motor, sensory and cognitive abilities
  • The hippocampus becomes smaller, which is important for learning and memory
  • Different levels of dysfunction of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which is related to the stress response
  • The volume of the prefrontal cortex is reduced, which affects behavior, emotional balance and perception
  • The amygdala is overactive, responsible for processing emotions and determining responses to potential stress or dangerous situations
  • The size of the cerebellum is reduced, which affects motor skills and coordination

Impact on behavior, emotions, and social function

Because childhood abuse, neglect and trauma can change the brain structure and chemical functions, abuse can also affect children’s behavior, regulation of emotions and social functions. These potential effects include:

  • Regardless of the situation, always remain vigilant and cannot relax
  • Fear most or all the time
  • Find more challenging social occasions
  • Learning deficits
  • Failure to reach development milestones in time
  • Tendency to develop mental health
  • Reduced ability to handle positive feedback
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If left unresolved, these effects may continue to cause problems in adulthood. Adults who have experienced abuse in childhood may have problems with relationships — or they may avoid it altogether.

This result may be related to attachment theory, or our early relationships with caregivers affect the way we get along with others in the future. Emotional abuse and neglect do not allow a safe attachment between the child and the caregiver, which can cause pain for the child and affect the way they view themselves and others.

Adults who have experienced childhood emotional abuse or neglect may also experience:

The impact of childhood abuse or neglect on a child’s later life depends on many factors:

  • Frequency of abuse
  • Child’s age during abuse
  • Who is the abuser
  • Is there a reliable and caring adult in the child’s life
  • How long did the abuse last
  • If there is any intervention in the abuse
  • Type and severity of abuse
  • Other personal factors


Through treatment, the effects of childhood emotional abuse and neglect can be addressed. In these cases, treatment is highly individualized, because abuse can take many forms, and each person may respond differently to it.

Any form of treatment may include treatment, and depending on whether there are any other mental health conditions, it may also include medication. Some effective forms of treatment are:

  • Exposure therapy: Exposure therapy involves interacting with things that usually cause fear, while slowly learning to stay calm. This form of treatment may improve neural connections between multiple areas of the brain.
  • Family therapy: Family therapy is a type of psychotherapy aimed at improving the relationship of the entire family and creating a better and more supportive family environment. This type of treatment may improve the function of the HPA axis and lead to a healthier stress response.
  • Mindfulness-based approach: Mindfulness-based therapy focuses on helping people develop awareness of their thoughts and feelings so that they can understand and better regulate them. These methods can help increase resilience against stress by benefiting multiple brain areas and improving neural connections.
  • Trauma-centric Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT): TF-CBT focuses on helping people learn new coping skills, reconstruct negative or unhelpful thoughts, regulate their emotions, and overcome trauma by making trauma narratives. This form of treatment may help reduce excessive activity in the amygdala.

Frequently asked questions

  • What is the definition of child abuse?

    Childhood abuse is any type of abuse or neglect of children under 18 by parents, caregivers, or other adults. It may include physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse and neglect.

  • What are the signs of child abuse?

    Signs of child abuse may include physical symptoms such as unexplained pain, bruising, weight change, headache or abdominal pain. Behavioral symptoms may include aggression against peers, social withdrawal, poor performance in school, sexual behavior, or self-harm. Poor hygiene, eating problems, or improper dressing due to the weather may also indicate abuse.