Child Abuse and the Brain: The Developmental Impact of Trauma in Childhood

Key discoveries in neuroscience have revealed a more comprehensive and sophisticated understanding of the impact of trauma on the developing brain. With incredible specificity, scientists have mapped how the experience of abuse in childhood changes the growing brain and predisposes it to psychiatric disorders in adulthood. Child abuse produces severe stress in the brain. The body’s physiological response to stress impacts the brain at a highly vulnerable period in its development. This overwhelming exposure to physiological stress in the brain results in enduring alterations in brain structure and function including gene expression, mylenation, neurogenesis, synapogenesis and neural morphology. These alterations pave the way for “inward directed” problems like depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation and post-traumatic stress disorder and/or “outward directed” problems such as aggression, addiction and impulsiveness. Understanding the specific consequences of abuse on the growing brain can significantly inform interventions and inspire new approaches for the focus and goal of treatment for child abuse victims.

Brain science can be an intimidating and sometimes boring topic for professionals in child-serving organizations, parents and policy makers. This workshop makes neuroscience understandable and accessible to non-scientists so that the importance and usefulness of these brain-based discoveries can be shared and utilized across the helping professions. Most important, these findings provide a compass for those programs serving child abuse victims. The strength of the findings regarding child abuse and brain development provide a clear direction to helpers on what interventions and characteristics are most important for rebuilding and enhancing damaged brains. By understanding this direction, helpers can compare and assess current practices and align them with this groundbreaking research to improve treatment for childhood victims of abuse.

Learning Objectives

  1. Participants will be able to identify 5 brain organs that play a significant role in learning and behavior in childhood.
  2. Participants will be able to describe the specific impact of child abuse on each of these organs.
  3. Participants will be able to assess how damage to each organ might manifest itself in observable behavior by the abused child in the cognitive, emotional and social arenas.
  4. Participants will be able to demonstrate knowledge of at least 6 primary intervention strategies for treating children with trauma histories.