A study carried out at University College London (UCL) has found that when a child is continually exposed to domestic violence, such as the father regularly beating the mother, their brains are negatively affected in a similar way to how the brains of soldiers are affected by exposure to combat in war.
As a result, the children’s brains may become HYPERSENSITIVE TO PERCEIVED THREAT, or, to put it informally, ‘stuck on red alert.’ This, in turn, may lead to the child becoming trapped in a distressing state of hyper-vigilance and extreme wariness/distrust of others.
The research study which discovered this entailed children being shown pictures of angry/threatening faces whilst undergoing a brain scan and from this it was found that their emotional response to these faces was far more intense than was the emotional response of another group of children who were from stable backgrounds (known as the ‘control group’) who underwent the same procedure.
Specifically, the brain scans revealed that the children who had been exposed to domestic violence showed unusually high activity levels in two parts of the brain when shown the pictures of the angry/threatening faces, namely:
1) The anterior insula
2) The amygdala
compared to the children shown exactly the same pictures but whom had had a stable, loving and protected childhood.
Similarity to effect of exposure to combat on the brain:
Such increased activity in these two brain regions has also been found to occur, from previous research, in the brains of soldiers who have experienced protracted exposure to armed conflict.
Short-term benefits but long-term losses:
One of the psychological researchers involved in the UCL study pointed out that this changed brain activity may be helpful to children who live in homes where there is domestic violence in the short-term by helping them to avoid danger.
However, in the long-term, the changes may cause the individual severe problems – for example, as an adult the individual may constantly overestimate the degree of danger that other people present to him/ her. In turn, this may lead that same individual to be prone to becoming disproportionately aggressive towards those s/he perceives to be a threat to him/her.
The individual, too, may perceive threats where they, in reality, do not exist due to his/ her constant wariness of others together with a pervasive sense of paranoia.
The researchers involved in this study also drew our attention to the fact that not all children who are exposed to domestic violence develop the kind of mental disturbance described above and that more research needs to be conducted in order to ascertain which factors contribute to this resilience.
Anxiety and depression:
Research also shows that children exposed to domestic violence are at significantly increased risk of developing anxiety and depression (click here to read my article on this); indeed, both the anterior insula and the amygdala play a prominent role in the generation of anxiety disorders.
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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).