This is the second post of our set in honor of Child Abuse Prevention Month. To read part one, please click The origin of trauma: What leads a person to abuse and neglect a child?
When most people hear about child abuse on the news, it breaks their hearts—for about 10 minutes. They shut off their TVs or switch the radio station and try to get on with their days.
But what happens to those children when responsible, healthy adults turn away?
When we turn away from abuse and neglect, children continue to live with it—everyday. Even when children are removed from their homes into foster or adoptive families, the trauma follows. Even as they grow into adults, the trauma stays with them. What we, as a nation, don’t understand about child abuse and neglect has dire consequences for children and in society.
The effects of trauma on the brain
The effects of trauma do not go away when traumatic events end. In fact, the effects take on a life of their own in the brain.
Here’s how it works—
When people experience traumatic events, the stress hormone cortisol is released in the brain. This biochemical reaction to chronic and extreme stress changes the formation of the brain. Consider this analogy—think of the human brain like the earth and water like trauma. Over time, the release of water over the earth begins to erode the soil into pathways. As pathways form, the water rushes down those pathways again and again until they become canyons. Like the earth, the brain begins to look physically different than it once did. Therefore, the brain reacts differently as a result. Fear becomes a reactive, overwhelming, and irrational emotion whenever the person experiences a trauma trigger—whether or not the person is actually in danger. Each time, the brain automatically goes into survival mode and the person fights, flees, or freezes in his own way. The longer these reactions go on, the deeper those “canyons” become.
These effects on the brain lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and attachment difficulties for many children who have been abused and neglected. A person in frequent flight, freeze, or flee mode is unable to attain and maintain healthy relationships. “A person’s quality of attachment plays a large part in determining an individual’s vulnerability to developmental deviations e.g., maladaptive schemas. Insecure models are defensively biased and lead to personality constraints and psychopathology,” said Robert W. McBride, LCSW. “[Such people]…have little or no ability to make healthy attachment with their mates, children, or society.”
The compounded problems that stem from trauma
The traumatic events children experience often relate to other problems in addition to negative brain effects and poor attachments, unfortunately. Mental illness, substance addiction, and legacies of abuse follow closely behind.
Children who have been abused and neglected often inherit their biological parents’ mental illnesses. Over his 40 years of service, psychiatrist Dr. John F. Alston found that many parents abuse and neglect their children due to their untreated mental illnesses and disorders. The most common issues abusive and neglectful parents battle, he found, are antisocial personality disorders, disorders of cognitive perceptions, substance addictions, bipolar disorder or a combination of such problems. Children who are not effectively treated for trauma effects and mental illnesses often battle yet another problem into adolescence and adulthood. That is, they self-medicate with drugs and alcohol and develop addictions as well.
Hurt people hurt people
Many people say that children are resilient and can overcome most hardships. While this is true in some cases in life, there are exceptions. The residual and associated effects of trauma—the harmful brain effects, attachment difficulties, personality constraints and psychopathology, and substance addictions are not issues that children can just “get over” without extensive clinical help.
Children who are abused and neglected are at high-risk of following the footsteps of their biological parents. “Childhood experiences greatly influence a person’s personality and the choices they use in their environment and relationship,” said Robert W. McBride, LCSW. Over the course of his career, McBride worked with over 2,300 men for various attachment issues. He randomly selected 394 of them of which to create a study in regard to three areas: attachment strategies, maladaptive schemas, and personality constraints. Most men with insecure attachment strategies disclosed during treatment that they had experienced trauma in childhood, specifically trauma physical, sexual, and psychological abuse or neglect, abandonment, or loss of the caregivers experienced by the child. Of the men he chose for his study, he found that men with insecure attachments had more incarcerations, more violent behaviors, higher rate of substance abuse, and a greater school drop-out rate than those with secure attachments.
The cycle is preventable
It is far from easy to stop the cycle of abuse and neglect. Yet, we can all do our small part toward change. Here at the Institute for Attachment and Child Development, we advocate for law changes in regard to children in our foster care system. When child protective services employees remove children from abusive and neglectful homes, they are also legally required to do their best to later reunite the family. Yet, the laws set in which to do so lack sufficiency in the best interest of children.
While abusive and neglectful parents must meet certain requirements to get their children back, those requirements in our country lack the most important element—mental stability. For parents to get their children back, social services usually require that they have steady employment and adequate housing. They also require that the parents haven’t gotten in trouble with the law, have cooperated with social services, and have received outpatient therapy. Yet, most parents do not receive treatment from clinicians qualified to help with their mental illnesses and personality disorders. Thus, the abuse continues. Our legal system shifts children back and forth between their abusive biological homes and foster homes, fostering further harm to children.
The aftermath of trauma is, sadly, generations of children suffering from further trauma. Our nation must decide to efficiently treat parents before returning their children to them. Birth parents need help to stop the cycle and legacy of abuse and neglect. When we do not help to break the cycle of abuse and neglect, we contribute to legacies of hurt within families, on society, and to our children.