When kids are threatened by their parents or their environment, when they are abused, or when they are otherwise experiencing high level of stress, their brains are actually being scarred. This is according to a study by the Stanford University Medical Center and reported by the BBC News Online.
The scientists discovered that the hippocampus of children with post-traumatic stress disorder had shrunk. The hippocampus is a brain structure that assists in storing and sorting memory and emotion. The withered hippocampus may make children “less able to deal with stress and increase anxiety.”
The study published in the journal Pedriatrics also revealed that stressed children had higher levels of cortisol, a stress hormone.
According to Sue Gerdhardt, a British psychoanalytic psychotherapist and the author of Why Love Matters: How Affection Shapes a Baby’s Brain, in normal situations, cortisol production is not harmful, but if a baby or toddler is left uncomforted for too long or exposed excessively to a stressful situation, the cortisol levels will spike. This is linked to depression and anxiety, and, alternately, to violence and aggression.
If cortisol is present in the child at high levels, it kills brain cells and impedes the child’s intellectual development. It interferes with the brain’s ability to form memory by inhibiting the use of blood sugar by the hippocampus. It also interferes with the neurotransmitters making appropriate connections within the brain, resulting in the kid’s inability to concentrate and learn.
In other studies, it was shown that kids who are stressed in their first 3 years tend to be sensitive to stress. Their brains are hard-wired to overreact to stressful situations and they end up hyperactive, anxious, impulsive and oftentimes neurotic.
Kids who are abused can have an increased risk of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and addictions later in life, according to a Harvard research. This is caused by specific changes in key regions in and around the hippocampus in the brains, as revealed by brain scans of young adults who were maltreated or neglected in childhood.
Also, a study published in journal Pediatrics takes a look at the possible link between mental health disorders and harsh physical punishment in the absence of abuse. While it may be true that many of today’s parents were spanked as children and are now well-adjusted, previous studies have also shown that those who were spanked are at a higher risk to be depressed; use alcohol; hit their spouse or own children; and engage in violent or criminal behaviors. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Canadian Paediatric Society discourage spanking and other forms of physical punishment. Preferred methods of discipline include withholding privileges, using time-outs and offering consequences (for example, “If you throw your toy and it breaks, you won’t be able to play with it anymore”).
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