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Shelly Barnes: How child abuse affects our brains, bodies and lives

Shelly Barnes • Updated Apr 25, 2018 at 6:15 PM

April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month, and Katie Conrad, human development specialist with University of Tennessee Extension, explains what you need to know about childhood adversity.

First, adverse childhood experiences, influence our brains, bodies and lives. They are defined as harmful and traumatic events during childhood that affect later life health and wellbeing. They include child abuse and neglect, substance abuse in the home, witnessing domestic or community-based violence, parental divorce, discrimination and poverty, just to name a few. 

“Adverse childhood experiences are common,” said Conrad. “According to the Tennessee Department of Health and the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth, nearly 61 percent of adult Tennesseans surveyed have experienced at least one adverse childhood experience. One in four report having experienced three or more adverse childhood experiences.” 

Research has shown that the more adverse childhood experiences a child has, the greater the risk of developmental harm.

Conrad said adverse childhood experiences have been shown to change a child’s brain. 

“In the first three years of life, a child’s brain grows the most rapidly of any time in their lives,” she said. “Eighty percent of their brain is formed within these early years. When a child has an adverse experience, they are subjected to a unique form of stress, called toxic stress. It shuts down important parts of the brain responsible for learning, problem solving, attention, decision making and regulating emotions.” 

Toxic stress puts a child under extreme fear and ongoing distress, as if they are constantly in the lion’s den, fighting for their lives, said Conrad. 

“Known as the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response, children with toxic stress are less able to focus, learn, and make good decisions,” she said.

More importantly, Conrad said children who experience ongoing toxic stress, grow into adults who act without thinking about consequences. 

“They tend to use less-than-healthy means to cope with the stressful emotions and thoughts they are experiencing,” she said. “For example, rather than taking a bath, snuggling an animal or loved one or enjoying a long walk to relax, a person with too many adverse childhood experiences might choose less healthy coping options like smoking, being inactive, spending hours perusing online or playing videos games or otherwise.”  

Conrad notes that the latter examples are considered less healthy since they are linked to later-life health risks like increased risk for lung cancer or COPD and obesity, leading to diabetes or heart disease. 

“Addiction, in general, may lead to other mental health risks, disrupted relationships with others, and potentially isolation and loneliness,” Conrad said. “Poor coping strategies lead to decreased life potential,” she adds. “Research suggests that having experienced more than five adverse childhood experiences in your upbringing increases your likelihood for dying 20 years earlier than someone who has experienced no adverse childhood experiences.  

So is everyone who has experienced multiple adverse childhood experiences doomed for a lifetime of bad choices and poor health? Not quite said Conrad, “The remarkable thing about the brain is how plastic it is. Just like our experiences can change how our brain functions for the worse, our experiences can also change our brain for the better.”  

Conrad said we can also help the children in our lives by providing loving, high-quality and interactive relationships in safe and nurturing environments. 

Conrad urges everyone to do one thing daily to enhance the quality of your relationship with yourself and the children closest to you. Good examples include: 

• hold, cuddle and hug your children often.

• check in often with children and yourself about how they are feeling, and actively listen and show warmth to their responses, good or bad.

• catch a child being “good,” and praise them often.

• find a community service event to do together, and reflect on the experience with one another.

• reserve time in your day for self-care and make time for you to do something you enjoy.

• search for fun “social and emotional learning” activities on Pinterest or otherwise to do with children such as making a calming bottle or empathy bracelet.

• get outside together to do something active, such as going on a nature scavenger hunt.

• have a “date night” with a child or special individual, and let them choose what to do on their date.

These and other positive actions are a great way to honor National Child Abuse Prevention Month.  

Learn more about childhood abuse prevention at childwelfare.gov/topics/preventing/preventionmonth.

The University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture celebrates 50 years of excellence to provide real life solutions through teaching, discovery and service. ag.tennessee.edu.

For more information on this or other family and consumer sciences-related topics, contact Shelly Barnes, family and consumer sciences Extension agent for UT Extension in Wilson County. Barnes may be reached at sbarnes@utk.edu or 615-444-9584.

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