Child looking frightened and upset

“Child abuse casts a shadow the length of a lifetime” – Herbert Ward

Child abuse is an especially poignant topic in South Africa.  In 2012 there were over 50 000 reported incidences of violence against children. An even scarier statistic is that, on average, 3 children are murdered in SA every day.

The impact of child abuse on adult survivors is varied.  Experts have known for years that these adults generally have an increased risk of developing both physical and mental illnesses, but recent research has been able to show just how significant the effect of early abuse is on the developing brain.  

We know now that abuse in early childhood makes the brain less resilient and results in poorer responses to stress.  It causes decreased functioning in the frontal lobe, which plays an important role in learning and problem solving, and increased sensitivity in the limbic system, which triggers our fight or flight response.  This may results in impulsive behaviour or cause excessive responses to minor stimuli – for instance, interpreting a neutral gesture as aggressive or seeing a minor setback as being a total catastrophe.  

Brain studies suggest that adult survivors of childhood abuse have smaller corpus collosums – the region of the brain responsible for integration of the left and right hemispheres – and may leads to dramatic shifts in mood and personality in these individuals.  

Abuse in childhood might also result in consistently increased levels of the stress hormone, Cortisol and might lead adult survivors to develop symptoms associated with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as well as lead to depression and increased vulnerability to addiction.

Our brains are adaptable – they try to change so as to cope best within their environment and the brains of children who are abused may adapt and react to the unpredictable and dangerous environments to which they are being exposed by setting off a ripple of structural and hormonal changes that will permanently wire them to cope with a malevolent world.  These changes may result in the cycle of violence and abuse being passed from one generation to the next.  

Jens Pruessner of the University of Montreal found that women who were sexually abused as children showed thinning in the regions of the somatosensory cortex associated with the genitals, face or mouth (depending where the abuse took place)  – suggesting that they might experience pain rather than pleasure when touched in these areas.  Emotional abuse in childhood seemed to result in thinning of the areas of the brain that have to do with emotional regulation and self-regulation.

 But these changes do not mean that adult survivors of childhood abuse are doomed to cope with these symptoms.  Precisely because the brain is adaptable it can continue to change, and for the better, when provided with the right type of emotional support.  By understanding the negative impact of childhood abuse on the brain we can begin to understand how to undo these changes.  

If you know or suspect that a child in your community is being abused report it to your local police station or contact Childline South Africa on 08 000 55555 or click on the following link for further details: