It’s no secret that stressors such as child abuse, poverty, and bullying are bad for children. Adults struggling with mental health challenges frequently point to childhood struggles as a source of their difficulties, and therapists aim to help their clients uncover how the past affects the present. A new study provides evidence that childhood stress changes the way children’s brains develop, leaving permanent marks on the brain.
Early Stress and Brain Development
Researchers looked at 128 preteen and early adolescent children who had experienced poverty, neglect, or physical abuse in early childhood. They interviewed the children and their guardians, cataloging behavioral challenges and evaluating the children’s history of stress. Then they used brain imaging to evaluate each child’s amygdala and hippocampus—two regions of the brain thought to play roles in memory, emotion, and decision-making.
The researchers then estimated the volumes of each child’s amygdala and hippocampus. They compared the brain regions to brain images from a control group of children who had not experienced abuse, neglect, or poverty. They found that children exposed to poverty, neglect, or abuse had smaller amygdalas than the control group. Children who had been physically abused also had smaller hippocampi. Children who had a history of behavioral problems or who had experienced additional stressors saw an even greater reduction in the size of these brain regions.
This research shows that the challenges children face after a lifetime of abuse or poverty are real and physical. The study’s authors emphasize the importance of reducing poverty and child abuse.
Previous research has shown that early stress exposes children to a host of subsequent risk factors. For example, a recent University of Michigan study found that students with lower family incomes had lower standardized test scores. Another study found that the stress of living in poverty affects school readiness.
- Poverty and Education. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://sitemaker.umich.edu/salas.356/more_money__better_grades
- Poverty-Related Stress Affects School Readiness, New Study Finds. (2011, October 26). Retrieved from http://www.nyu.edu/about/news-publications/news/2011/10/26/poverty-related-stress-affects-school-readiness-new-study-finds.html
- Tyrell, Kelly April. Early life stress can leave lasting impacts on the brain. (2014, June 27).Retrieved from http://www.news.wisc.edu/22955
© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved.
The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.