Domestic Violence Warps Children's Brains? Literally

Nearly 20 years later after having read "The Secret Life of the Unborn Child" which asserted that the experiences of the mother impact a developing baby in utero, technological advances have boosted our knowledge of how the brain works and develops and how hormones work. This understanding gives new urgency to the interesting issue of child development and family support. It jumped to my mind the other day when I read the news articles about the rise of domestic violence calls in South County.

Actually, it is the concern about the most traumatized domestic violence victims - children - that has lead to the current campaign for Pre-School for All and social services reforms. These have a root in an education campaign that comes from an unexpected source: The Office of the Attorney General of the State of California. Started in 2000, "Safe from the Start" focuses on educating adults on the traumatic effects witnessing violence has on a child's developing brain. The gist? In order to improve public education, reduce the number of incarcerated youth, reduce the number of people in the "name that system to support recovery/treatment of dysfunction," we MUST reduce the chronic exposure of young children to violence, either as victims or witnesses. Why the effort from the attorney general? Because the lion's share of people in the justice system grew up with chronic exposure to violence.

Based on the brain research of Dr. Bruce Perry, Chief of Psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital, the goal of this campaign is to move adults to place a true priority on the lives of all our community's children and focus on providing them with safe environments in the home and in school. Because of the effects on the brains of children who witness domestic violence, what we previously thought was an issue to be dealt with by law enforcement only and none of our business actually should be one of our largest concerns.

Recent research allows us to gain insight into how the brain processes - or doesn't - fear and alarm, and what happens to it when it is soaked in stressors from those prolonged mental states. The biochemicals that bombard the brain impede its ability to progress to higher-order thinking.

Studies suggest that children who witness violence suffer more Post Traumatic Stress Disorder than even children who have been abused themselves. PET scans show that the brains of children who endure chronic exposure to violence look like that of an adult suffering from Alzheimer's.

Exposed to violence, children either grow up becoming aggressors, or extremely vulnerable. Always on alert to danger and threat, on the lookout for non-verbal cues, people with chronic exposure to violence are highly reactive, and overreact to certain situations (An example is the fracas last year in the NBA when a pro basketball player clocked a fan that approached the player with what he perceived was a threatening stance. Replayed over and over in the news, "reasonable" people wondered why he didn't just walk away. It turns out, he probably couldn't).

Another alarming assertion from Dr. Perry: about one third of children diagnosed with attention deficit disorder are actually misdiagnosed, and thus overmedicated. It is because of their chronic exposure to violence that they cannot concentrate, sit still, or that they act out at school.

For four decades, we have been told to give our children positive, loving experiences. I think we need to be more specific, in every domain - and say what hasn't been said - that they must not be exposed to violence, either abused themselves, or witnessing daddy whomping on mommy (or vice versa). It's come to that. This is not just about domestic violence. If we care about reforming education, eradicating homelessness, improving public health, preventing teen pregnancies/abortions or whatever contributes to the overall health of our communities, we need to pay attention to this very important issue.

One strategy is to truly integrate our systems of support, recognizing children and families are all different, and therefore do not benefit from one-size-fits-all programs and classrooms. For example, why provide children who've been caught using drugs at school with the same intervention, when the road to why they started using was very different?

Dina Campeau
10 March 2006



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