Thankfully, the majority of people will never know the emotional scars carried by abused children, or soldiers who have seen combat. In order for them to survive they must be able to build skills that will shield them from the memories and allow them to continue to function. What neuroscientists are now finding is that the survival skills for both of these groups are similar, and that the brains of children who come from violent homes function much like that of a soldier when it comes to recognizing threats.
Researcher Eamon McCrory and his colleagues, from University College London, scanned the brains of 20 children who appeared outwardly healthy, but had grown up in violent homes. They had a control group of 20 children from safe environments. The average age of the children was 12.
Each child was asked to view a mixture of facial expressions – sad, neutral and angry while connected to a functional magnetic resonance imagery scanner (fMRI). The maltreated children showed extra activity in their amygdala and the anterior insula of the brain, known to be areas of pain anticipation and threat detection. Combat soldiers in similar studies showed the same type of activity when viewing angry faces.
“Our belief is that these changes could reflect neural adaptation,” says McCrory. “Maltreated kids and active soldiers are adapting to survive in a threatening or dangerous environment.” He went on to add that, “Although this could help children survive their early years, it may predispose them to mental health problems in adulthood, such as depression or anxiety.”
In a related study, published by Hilary Blumberg of Yale University School of Medicine and colleagues, areas of the brain that are important for emotional processing are lacking neurons in people who suffer from abuse as children. “The studies suggest that childhood maltreatment ‘gets into the brain’, and becomes biologically embedded,” says Avshalom Caspi, who studies mental health at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.
Survival skills an abused child, and combat soldier share is their ability to block out their emotions and seek ways to emotionally hide from their circumstances. Soldiers are often riddled with guilt for what they had to do, and try to forget it ever happened. A child will deny there is any problem by blocking it out entirely or daydreaming they are someplace else.
An abused child will withdraw, since attention from an adult often brings abuse. They learn it is not safe to express themselves, or to change things. Soldiers become withdrawn, especially when they return home and don’t want others to judge them for what they may have done.
Both will turn off their feelings, and distance themselves from others as an insulation against any more pain. Their behavior may change, perhaps becoming violent and abusive themselves.
An estimated number of 4% – 16% of children suffer some form of physical abuse. This sort of environmental stress will affect them later in life – through some type of mental problems that can manifest itself by depression, anxiety, acting out, anger, and violence.
In order to be able to function normally, abused children and combat soldiers need therapy – whether they believe it or not.
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New Scientist – Abused children’s brains work like soldiers’ do: http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn21245-abused-childrens-brains-work-like-soldiers-do.html
Angelfire.com – Survival skills learned by abused children: http://www.angelfire.com/ca6/soupandsalad/content61.htm
Current Biology – Heightened neural reactivity to threat in child victims of family violence: http://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822%2811%2901139-0