Exposure to Violence and the Developing Brain

We grow up not really knowing the specifics of how our brain works. We try to do the simple things to protect it, like eat correctly, drink enough water to keep it and our body hydrated and wear a helmet when on a bicycle.

But there are other influences we have to protect our brain from too. Influences we may not believe can impact the physical makeup of our brains…like exposure to violence.

With physical violence, the first concern to arise with any parent or caregiver may be the physical wounds of a child, not that the violence – or prolonged exposure to any type of violence – might alter their brain, hindering development.

So this week academics and researchers try to spread the word about what our brains need, what harms them, etc. during Brain Awareness Week. In 1996, Brain Awareness Week was founded by the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives and European Dana Alliance for the Brain to promote the importance, progress and benefits of brain research.

As we’ve explained in our Issue Brief, when confronted with stressful circumstances, children respond by releasing hormones and activating brain circuits to cope. The hormones and chemicals of these stress responses are essential; they help people protect themselves when threatened. When the stressful event is over, the physical response decreases and finally disappears. But children who are chronically exposed to violence (e.g., child abuse and neglect, community or family violence) never shut off their stress responses. They live constantly in a state of alert and crisis, which can produce neurochemical changes and adaptations that ultimately damage the child if not addressed.

When it comes to children’s exposure to violence, recent studies have shown that exposure can alter a child’s brain.  One study found that the brain of a child exposed to violence can look like that of a soldier that suffers from PTSD.

From Caelan Kuban, LMSW, Director of The National Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children:

•             Because of an intense surge in stress hormones, the brains of traumatized children are not as well integrated as the brains of non-traumatized children. This helps explain why traumatized children have significant difficulties with learning, emotional regulation, integrated functioning and social development.

•             The brain isn’t fully developed until the end of adolescence – age 23!

•             Each experience, whether good or bad, creates new neuronal connections in our brain. Experience becomes our biology.

•             Our brains are constantly changing. This is why it is never too late to provide a child with repetitive, new, positive experiences.

This is a great time to try and understand what influences our brain development and that of our children. Below are some resources to get you started.

National Scientific Council on the Developing Child: Excessive Stress Disrupts the Architecture of the Brain
Explains how significant adversity early in life can alter—in a lasting way—a child’s capacity to learn and to adapt to stressful situations, how sensitive and responsive caregiving can buffer the effects of such stress, and how policies could be shaped to minimize the disruptive impacts of toxic stress on young children.

The Dana Foundation
Educational resources for adults and kids to help understand the human brain

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