The Effects of Child Abuse on the Developing Brain

If your child has been molested, or you are an adult survivor of child sexual abuse yourself, you may have experienced the effects of child abuse on healthy development without ever understanding why or how these consequences take shape.

child developing brain

While the impact of sexual abuse can take many forms—emotional, social, and also physiological—often victims are simply told to seek professional counseling, without learning what damage may actually have been done.

With a lack of understanding, victims of child sexual abuse and their families often think they can simply “get over it” after a period of time. But when left untreated, the effects of child abuse can lead to unchecked developmental difficulties that can actually be measured by looking at abuse survivors’ brains.

Nervous Arousal

Let’s start with nerves. The human brain is the central hub of the nervous system. In a normally “balanced” nervous system, your stress response and arousal to danger act to keep you safe. You feel fear or panic in situations where you should feel fear and panic.

Abuse causes stress for the brain. Children with a history of sexual abuse often suffer the consequences of what science calls “body dysregulation.” This means that children and adult survivors respond to stimuli in their everyday lives to an exaggerated degree. Many survivors are hypersensitive to sounds, smells, tastes, and touches that are otherwise safe or don’t deserve such a dramatic response.

This degree of nervous response can take its toll. An overactive stress response inhibits many everyday life functions and can lead to troubles socializing normally with other people. Stress can also lead to self-medicating and substance abuse as “outlets” to curb anxiety. You may even pass up positive events or life-changing encounters thanks to an over-inflated sense of fear.

Some survivors’ nervous systems may also “numb” them, a condition scientists call “analgesia.” This means the child or adult has chronic trouble evaluating their own internal physical sensations. If they hurt themselves, they may not realize it until their condition becomes dangerous. The opposite can also be true: Many adult survivors of mistreatment complain about chronic physical problems where no true cause exists.

Brain Structures

There are many structures within the human mind that are affected by sexual abuse. These structures have specific jobs to do during a child’s development, and damage to them in youth, while not irreversible, presents serious cognitive challenges for them as they age.

Neurophysiological research on child survivors has been ongoing for over 12 years. In that time, neuroscientists such as Dr. Martin Teicher of Harvard, and Dr. Bruce Perry of the Child Trauma Academy in Houston, have shown direct connections between childhood abuse and abnormal brain development.

For example, an almond-shaped structure called the amygdala handles the brain’s response to stress. As explained above, a sexually abused person’s nervous system tends to overreact to safe events and everyday sensations with a “Code Red” stress response. Researchers have shown damage to the amygdala is behind these out-of-proportion reactions. Essentially, the amygdala sends out signals of danger to the child’s mind when no danger actually exists. Dr. Bruce Perry says an abused child’s amygdala makes them “recoil in fear at the drop of a hat”. They are “hypersensitive” to even minor threats.

Childhood sexual abuse also affects other brain structures. The cortex is responsible for the majority of our rational decision-making, planning, and analytical abilities. The hippocampus is a deep-brain structure that helps process emotions and memories. These structures work together to help children and adults learn new things. The stress of abuse compromises these parts of the brain. With a damaged ability to learn, it is an uphill battle for abused children and adult survivors alike to learn coping mechanisms and new ways to frame their experiences with or without therapy.

Chemical Effects of Child Abuse

Brain structures alone aren’t the only targets of abuse. Chemicals inside the brain are crucial for development and are also at risk. The hormone cortisol, for example, is responsible for our stress response. In the mind of an abused child or adult survivor, cortisol is produced more than in the brains of people with no history of abuse. Other chemicals specific to the brain (neurotransmitters), such as serotonin, epinephrine, and dopamine, help regulate our good moods and sense of accomplishment. Abused brains tend to make less of these chemicals, which can lead to bouts of depression or “impulsive aggression” later in life.

What’s more, very high levels of stress chemicals change a child’s brain circuitry. The more pronounced the stress and abuse, the more “toxic” chemicals such as cortisol are to the system. Research also shows that victims who were abused by close family members must cope with more negative brain development outcomes than other victims of abuse.

Everything we’ve covered—stress, brain structures, and long-term conditions—are all intimately connected. The amygdala produces cortisol; stress and abuse increase cortisol inside the brain; prolonged stress can make children and adult survivors “hypersensitive” to stimuli and stress; and stress that goes unchecked is a main ingredient of many depressive and aggressive disorders. Remember that abuse is complex and has a far reach, a reach that starts at the chemical and brain-structure level. How you cope with your own abuse should also be complex and far-reaching.

Professional Help: Sooner is Better

Critical brain structures grow and crucial connections happen during the first 3 years of a child’s life. Neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to “rewire” itself, is an ongoing power of the mind. This being said, the scars and long-term effects of childhood sexual abuse are never fully healed. If you are the adult survivor of sexual abuse, your developing brain structures, and the chemicals they produce, were negatively impacted and fundamentally changed the course of your development. Children who are victims of sexual abuse are experiencing these negative brain changes every day.

The good news is that there are always ways to change how you perceive yourself now, how you remember and cope with events of your past, and therapies and behavioral changes you can take to help you better manage conditions in the future. If you are a parent whose child is the victim of sexual abuse, know that the earlier you can intervene and get them help, the less severe the effects of their trauma are likely to be.

So many long-term conditions, from eating disorders, to severe depression, to PTSD, stem from alterations of brain structures and chemistry. Learning where they come from can give you a new perspective on abuse and new ideas of how best to cope. Early awareness and prevention are still the best courses of action, as is sharing your own experiences with a supportive community.

Questions About the Effects of Child Abuse

Are you the survivor of sexual abuse? How have you coped? How does learning that childhood abuse threw your early development off track make you feel?

Please let us know in the comments below, and follow this link for more specific information on how sexual abuse affects brain development.