We all know that maltreating children is a terrible thing. How about if we look at the clinical implications of neurodevelopment in abused children? In fact, children in our therapeutic foster care system are in treatment in order to heal, restore and recover from this type of unhealthy functioning. When a child is maltreated or abused poor thinking patterns or behaviors result; these are examples of negative functional effects. There is no question that trauma alters the developing brain.
How is a traumatized child supposed to recover from such terrible abuse? The key is to find the appropriate treatment for these children. One significant point sometimes overlooked by therapists is starting to work from the bottom of the brainstem up which will be talked about in a later article.
The very inner-workings of the brain are affected on a physiological level when abuse occurs. If the abuse is long-term these affects on the neural systems can be even more complicated. The way the brain is comprised is of simple and more complex functions. Simple regulatory functions such as blood pressure, body temperature, regulation of respiration, etc, are orchestrated by lower parts of the brain, for example, in the brainstem and diencephalon. More complex features of the brain such as language and abstract thinking are orchestrated in the higher parts of the brain. If you can imagine, there are innumerable ways for these neurons to communicate and interact with various structures in the brain, whereby insurmountable functions are possible.
When an event occurs, the brain interprets it and a physiological response is created. You are familiar with this when you sense that something is threatening, such as scorching heat and your reaction is to withdraw your fingers from the burner on the stove. Well, in a similar sense, if a child is sexually abused in early life by a male family member or family friend (who uses her full name repeatedly during the abuse), she could show an immediate reaction of shivering when a male guidance counselor calls her by her full name instead of her nickname.
Even before completely processing the full event, she appeared to have an alarming response to it. This individual is making an association even though the origin of the trauma-related symptom is happening in a completely different time and context.
Interestingly enough, my neighbor who adopted a dog has problems with her almost adult puppy. Even though the dog is not a human child who was traumatized, this dog in particular was abused by its former owner. One day when we all were walking along Prospect Park West, we happened to see a tall man walk by. The puppy became very alarmed and reacted by shaking and stopping. I told her it could be that the tall man reminds her of her past abuser.
By learning more about the ways the brain functions, hopefully we will be able to treat maltreated children early and consistently as well as educate them about their own emotional intelligence.