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Family Violence Changes Children’s Brains

Posted on January 19, 2012

A recent study in Current Biology explores the ways in which exposure to family violence changes children’s brains. Exposure to violence in the household includes physical abuse, which is experienced by between 4 and 16% of children, and intimate partner violence, which is witnessed by between 8 and 25% of children. The study used MRIs to compare the responses of children exposed to family violence with those of children not exposed to family violence when shown pictures of angry, neutral and sad faces.

When shown the angry face, children who had experienced family violence showed greater reactivity in both the amygdala, which moderates emotional responses and preparation for stress, and the anterior insula (AI), which works with the amygdala to anticipate pain, than children who had not experienced family violence. Although this heightened response may be beneficial when faced with an immediate threat, previous research links increased reactivity in these areas of the brain to several anxiety disorders.The authors suggest that this hypervigilance may limit a child’s ability to master certain social skills and may even predispose children to future aggression. The study did not include children with symptoms of depression or anxiety disorders, implying that there are neurological consequences of family violence even in children without mental health symptoms.

Several Schubert Center Faculty Associates study violence and its effects on children. Daniel Flannery researches the effects of violence on children in Cuyahoga County. Read a policy brief on his work. Patrick Kanary studies youth violence prevention and childhood exposure to violence. Jeffrey Kretschmar studies violence and aggression. Judith Lipton studies inter-disciplinary strategies for addressing domestic violence and the rights of immigrant victims of family violence. Mark Singer studies youth violence and the community. James Spilsbury researches how family violence can affect children’s sleep and health.

Read The Atlantic’s summary of the study.


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