Like most psychological and mental issues, the effects of emotional abuse on children is not easily visible on the outside. However, it’s not exactly “invisible” either. Thanks to CT scans like the one below we can easily see the effects emotional abuse can have not just on a children’s psyche but on their brains as well. (1)
Despite the obvious size differences, these two CT scans are of children of the same age – 3-years-old.
The bigger image on the left is of an emotionally healthy child that’s being raised in a stable and loving home. The CT scan of that child is clearer and the brain has significantly less blurry structures.
On the other side, the right brain’s image has multiple obvious formations and structures that are typical for elderly people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
It should be noted that “emotional abuse” doesn’t necessarily include physical abuse. Emotional abuse can come in the form of constant humiliation of the child and the degradation of his/her trust, self-esteem, and social skills.
Science’s view on the issue
Of course, a couple of pictures are not conclusive. However, they are a part of a much larger paper done by Professor Bruce Perry, the chief of psychiatry at Texas Children’s Hospital. (2) According to Professor Perry, the child on the right CT scan is suffering from “severe sensory deprivation neglect”, which is something that affects the cognitive development of children later in life.
Professor Perry also emphasizes that the effects of emotional abuse on children may not be talked or thought about often but are no less detrimental than those of other types of abuse. One of the most common consequences of emotional abuse is that even when they grow into adults, such children still find it impossible to form healthy relationships. These problems can range from having overly intense attachment issues to being unable to form attachments at all and living in isolation.
Another study from the Stanford Children’s Hospital in 2009 determined that children suffering from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) are at significant risk of experiencing a decreased size of their hippocampus. (3) This, in turn, lowers the child’s memory prowess and abilities to experience various emotions. In extreme cases, it’s possible for an emotionally abused child to even develop certain sociopathic disorders.
Dr. Victor Carrion from the Stanford Children’s Hospital said that “Although everyday levels of stress are necessary to stimulate normal brain development, excess levels can be harmful. We’re not talking about the stress of doing your homework or fighting with your dad. We’re talking about traumatic stress. These kids feel like they’re stuck in the middle of a street with a truck barreling down at them.”
Many other studies have reached the same conclusions over the years. But as Professor Perry summarizes it: “Healthy development of the neural systems which allow optimal social and emotional functioning depends upon attentive, nurturing caregiving in infancy and opportunities to form and maintain a diversity of relationships with other children and adults throughout childhood.”