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Traumatic early childhood experiences such as neglect and stress lead to serious consequences for mental and physical health in adulthood. Recent research shows that this is a result of defects in early brain development caused by lack of adequate care.

Decades of research show that early brain development in childhood seriously influences the future health of adults. Children’s brain shows a remarkable degree of plasticity and is incredibly sensitive to external stimuli which can direct its development.

Empirical observations show that kids from families with history of child abuse and neglect experience multiple problems in later life.

They range from inability to fit to the societal norms, difficulties in forming and sustaining healthy relationships, excessive aggressiveness and risk taking to neurological depressive disorders and problems with physical health.

The problems can come from both excessive stress caused by physical or emotional abuse and the lack of adequate communication caused by neglect.

Stress can have different effects on body and brain

Scientists distinguish two types of stress, which have profoundly different effects on our physical and psychological well-being.

Tolerable stress occurs at relatively brief periods. This allows body and brain enough time to recover. In some circumstances, tolerable stress can be beneficial since it allow body and brain to develop the resistance mechanisms. Certain exposure to stress in childhood promotes adaptation mechanisms. This is a normal part of developmental process.

Toxic stress is caused by prolonged, strong or frequent negative events completely out of individual’s control. It may lead to physical and mental illnesses and, in case of children, problems with brain development.

Early experience of severe stress can have toxic effects on the adult health. Early life stressors such as physical and emotional abuse, parental abuse of drugs and alcohol, conflicts in the family are clearly linked to increased violence, drug abuse and even suicides in adolescent life.

Neglect can severely affect child development

It seems that neglect may result even in more profound effects. Multiple studies show that the lack of adequate adult-child communication in early life can lead to inadequate degree of “fight or flight” behavior, lower level of social engagement and atypical attachment behavior.

The children with disrupted attachment history, especially those in foster care, are particularly vulnerable.

These findings make many researchers question the wisdom of placing children out of home where they may experience even less emotional security, even though it is compensated by better care-giving.

Early childhood experience directs the development of brain architecture

What are the neurodevelopmental mechanisms leading to such effects?

Developmental neuroscience has produced some really impressive findings in the last decade. In particular, it was discovered that certain regions of the brain, such as prefrontal cortex and parietal regions, undergo a protracted period of maturation in children and adolescents. This neural maturation manifests itself morphologically by thinning of cortical grey matter and pruning of neuronal axons. Researchers believe that these changes reflect the growing control of the prefrontal cortex over behavior. The absence of such control results in poor decision making and impulsivity. The formation of proper neural control mechanisms seem to be very sensitive to environmental factors. Stress and neglect during childhood may lead to impaired impulse control later in adolescent and early adulthood periods.

It is now believed that the lack of adequate communication in early life affects the architecture of brain and prevents the formation of proper neuronal networks.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Graham, A. M., Kim, H. K., & Fisher, P.A (2012). Partner Aggression in High-Risk Families from Birth to Age 3: Associations with Harsh Parenting and Child Maladjustment. Journal of Family Psychology, 26, 105-114
  • Healey, C.V. and Fisher, P.A. (2011) Children in foster care and the development of favourable outcomes. Child Youth Serv. Rev. 33, 1822-1830
  • Romer, D. (2010) Adolescent risk taking, impulsivity, and brain development: implications for prevention. Dev.Psychobiol. 52, 263-276
  • Schuengel, C., Oosterman, M. and Sterkenburg, P.S. (2009) Children with disrupted attachment histories: Interventions and psychophysiological indices of effects. Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health 3, 26
  • Photo courtesy of fiskfisk on Flickr: