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What Happens to the Brains of Adults Who Were Abused As Children?

Child being verbally abused

Women who are being abused often have a very hard time leaving their abusers. This is especially true if they have children. Abusers keep their victims under their control using many methods. One of the best methods is to threaten harm to the children if she should leave. Or, they might threaten to petition for full-custody if there is a divorce, or even threaten to kidnap the children and take them to another state, where the mother will never see them again.

The abuser also works to lower the victim’s self esteem. She will often doubt her abilities as a mother. Because of her abuse, she will often feel afraid to try to live on her own, and have no money to do so, and she might have very few job skills. All of this works to the abuser’s advantage. It keeps his victim right where he wants her to be, under his control.

In addition, if the victim is a Christian wife, she may take to heart her vow to “love, honor and cherish” her husband “until death do them part”, even though her husband feels no need to honor or cherish her. She may be very torn about getting a divorce, and bringing up her children in a “broken home”.

I was once in this situation. I felt it would be dishonoring to God if I should leave my husband and seek a divorce. I also didn’t want my children to experience the pain of their parents divorcing.

What I did not understand was the extent of the pain they were experiencing being raised in an abusive home. I told myself that since our abuse was mainly emotional, they weren’t being harmed that much. Sadly, I was mistaken.

The truth is that while you and your children are living with an abuser, there is no immediate way to protect them from him. You might ask, “What if my husband focuses his abuse only on me, or we both try to argue when the children are gone from the house or asleep?” Children are amazingly perceptive. They know when there is tension between their parents. This will cause them fear even if they are not being abused themselves.

There are many dangers to children living in abusive homes that most people are not aware of. What follows may upset you, but this is important information for every mother to have. Some of the following applies more to women in physically abusive homes, but be aware that all abuse, whether emotional or physical will affect the children living in your home.

I came upon an article recently that describes the neurobiological affects of childhood abuse. Here is the link.

I will summarize the article for you here:

Any type of abuse that a child experiences can actually change the way the child’s brain develops. Some problems that might follow an abused child later into life are Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). (Teicher M. H., 2000)

Possible symptoms of Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) include: prolonged sadness or deflated mood, significant changes in weight or appetite, insomnia or hypersomnia, irritability, difficulty in concentration and memory, and even the consideration of suicide. (American Psychiatric Association, 2000)

Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is characterized by emotional instability, impulsive behavior, abnormal affect, chronic fear of abandonment, and frequently includes suicide gestures. Depression is also commonly experienced by patients with BPD. (American Psychiatric Association, 2000; Comer, 2011)

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) occurs only after a person suffers a severe trauma, which results in flashbacks, depression, restriction of experienced emotion, anxiety, panic attacks, avoidance of possible triggers, nightmares, sleep disturbances, dissociation, irritability, difficulty with concentration and memory, and hyper arousal including being startled easily. (American Psychiatric Association, 2000)

How does child abuse put a person at increased risk for developing MDD, BPD, or PTSD? One of the leading experts in the field on this subject, Dr. Martin H. Teicher, hypothesized that “the trauma of abuse induces a cascade of effects, including changes in hormones and neurotransmitters that mediate development of vulnerable brain regions.” (Teicher, 2000, p. 5 para. 3) In other words, when a child is abused, hormones are released in their brains that affect the way the brain actually develops.

limbic_system1121

Others believe that abuse damages a child’s limbic system, which is the part of the brain that controls emotion and survival instincts. (Spiers, et al., 1985; Teicher, et al., 1993; Teicher, 2000). When the limbic system is impaired, the child is predisposed to developing PTSD later in life. It is also associated with memory problems, chronic unhappiness, aggression, and violent tendencies toward oneself and others, which can also be linked both to MDD and BPD. (Teicher M. H., 2000)

Research also indicates that patients who have been abused in early life have difficulty integrating the left and right sides of their brain. The right hemisphere is responsible for processing and expressing negative emotions, whereas the left is the side that keeps emotions in check. This explains why those with BPD may go from putting someone on a pedestal to being  over critical of the same person, seeing things and people in black and white terms, rather than in a more integrated point of view that both bad and good can exist within one person or situation. When using the left side of their brain, people seem glowingly positive to the individual, and when using the right side of their brain, those same people are completely negative. (Teicher M. H., 2000)

However, the neurobiological effects of neglect don’t stop there. Child abuse can result in a permanent increased levels of vasopressin, a stress hormone associated with sexual arousal, and lowered levels of oxytocin, a critical hormone in maintaining monogamous relationships, which could in theory explain why BPD patients may be predisposed to have such turbulent relationships that are often short-lived and intense in nature. (Teicher M. H., 2000)

All of the above points to the fact that childhood abuse sets kids up for developing depression, borderline disorder and PTSD.

No mother wants her child to grow up with long-term problems such as these. For many women, realizing the damage that the violence in her home is causing to her children will be the impetus for her to act to get away from her abuser. If you are interested in learning how to leave your abuser safely, I invite you to read my book, A Journey through Emotional Abuse:From Bondage to Freedom.

I always like to caution women who are in abusive relationships. First, when you encounter information such as this, don’t share it with your abuser. You may be tempted to use the information against him, to tell him how wrong he is behaving, etc. I strongly recommend that you not do this. This will only put you in danger, and it will most likely NOT change him. Second, you should always make a safety plan before making a move to leave the relationship. Leaving an abuser is the most dangerous time for a victim. This is because your abuser does NOT want you to leave. Therefore, I recommend that you call the National Domestic Violence Hotline from a safe telephone at 1−800−799−SAFE(7233). They will help you create your own safety plan. In addition, you can check out my blog on safety planning at this link.

Leaving an abuser is a frightening thing. Please don’t feel that I am telling you what to do. I can’t do this, nor can anyone else. Each woman must decide what is best for herself and her children. The best that I can do is help you with information so that you can make the most informed decisions that you can.

Your abuser may have made you feel totally alone in your situation. But you are NOT alone. There are many, many women who have been in abusive relationships, and are currently in abusive relationships. And there are many groups out there available to help you. Calling the National Domestic Violence Hotline is a good place to start. You can also contact me via my Facebook account.

Most importantly however, God is with you. As it says in Romans 8:31 – 38:

What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?  As it is written:

“For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

I pray you will be able to feel this love of God as you move forward.

Your friend,

Caroline

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This Post Has 11 Comments

  1. Nosiphiwo says:

    Shocking information indeed! very helpful though. I aslo battled with leaving my ex-abuser and “obeying God”. I listened to people who misquoted the scripture “God hates divorce”. Thank God I realized that God is a loving Father therefore he could not expect me to live a miserable life. I could see how disturbing my abusive marriage was to my children, I filed for divorce. I am now happy with my children in a happy and peaceful home.

  2. I am happy you made this decision for yourself and your children! I invite you to read my next post about biblical submission. I think you will find it interesting! Thank you for taking the time to comment Nosiphiwo!

  3. Caroline, great blog! Really helps put in perspective what experiencing domestic violence does to children and how the long-term effects of this experience can change a child’s life and future.

    Would love to invite you to write a guest article (fully credited to you) for our blog if you would be interested. Hope to hear from you at info@cdv.org. Good luck and keep spreading the message!

  4. Tracy Anderson says:

    wow Caroline alll I can say is very educational reading, and glad to see someone publish this knowledge. Would love to be able to talk one on one with you sometime and share my story with you

  5. walter says:

    Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. – 1 Corinthians 13:4-7

    Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, – Ephesians 5:25-33

  6. donna oppenheim says:

    So, as a adult child survivor of abuse, I like to think that this damage can be somewhat repaired. After 14 years of psychotherapy, my self awareness, self acceptance and self esteem are at least greatly improved. Any thoughts on that?

    • Yes, Donna. I totally agree that children can rise above the damage abuse might potentially cause them. I am also a child of domestic violence, and while my past does cause me trouble on occasion, I also feel that I have overcome the majority of it. I applaud you for all your hard work, and pray that your present and future life is wonderful!
      Caroline

  7. Tamara J. Wright says:

    I enjoyed reading your blog. I am a survivor of sexual, mental, physical, and emotional abuse from the age of around four or five into my adulthood with my now ex-husband. I am now 44 years old and have just recently started on my road to healing. With over 20 years of abuse I had a lot of hate and bitterness toward men in general. I am currently working through my feelings of hate and bitterness. Because I have no trust I have chosen to remain alone. I pray that one day the Lord will send me someone who will teach me to trust again. I don’t know just a thought I suppose. I wouldn’t wish my life on anyone but my life has made me who I am today. A very strong and independent woman. May God bless each and every one of you…

    • Dear Tamara,

      Thanks so much for your comment. We have a lot in common. I was also married for 20 years to my abuser. Fortunately, the Lord did bless me with a wonderful second husband who has helped me along my path to healing. The issue of healing is important to so many victims that I help. Because of this, I have just started writing my second book entitled “A Journey to Healing after Emotional Abuse”. Books take a long time to write, so I am unsure when it will come out. In the meantime, please check out several blogs I have written about healing under the following tag: http://www.carolineabbott.com/tag/healing-from-abuse/. Also, you can use my contact form to email me if I can help you in any way. God bless you Tamara. Caroline

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