New scientific research confirms what we have long suspected – that child abuse has a long-term impact on a child’s life. This new research also shows us that the effects of child abuse impact the entire community, harming both quality of life and economic prosperity.
Children who experience abuse develop toxic levels of stress. Some stress – called positive stress – is good and helps a child grow. For example, moving to a new school is stressful but teaches a child how to make new friends and adapt to new situations. Consistent, high levels of stress become toxic to a child and actually damage the developing architecture of a child’s brain.
Exposure to toxic stress changes the way a child’s brain is built. The area that controls the fight-or-flight survival mechanism overdevelops, while areas that control emotion, cognitive thinking and an understanding of risk and consequence are stunted.
The changes to a child’s brain caused by exposure to toxic stress can lead to significant behavioral changes: The overdeveloped fight-or-flight center seeks calm and pleasure through things like food, drugs and sex. The cognitive center is less prepared for academic success. The part that controls risk or consequence is not prepared to make appropriate decisions.
In 2005, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and insurer Kaiser Permanente released the most comprehensive research to date on the impact of child abuse and neglect. This study, called the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study or ACE Study, surveyed 17,000 adults about their childhood experiences and compared them with their health histories. The research found that children who suffered severe adversity in childhood – violence, abject poverty, substance abuse in the home, child abuse and neglect – were far more likely to suffer long-term intellectual, behavioral, and physical and mental health problems.
Problems now concretely linked to child abuse and neglect include behavioral and achievement problems in school; heart, lung and liver disease; obesity and diabetes; depression, anxiety disorders, and increased suicide attempts; increased criminal behaviors, illicit drug use and alcohol abuse; increased risky sexual behavior and unintended pregnancies; and other problems.
The ACE Study shows that the long –term impact of child abuse and neglect is not simply an impact on the individual victim. Problems linked to child abuse and neglect tax healthcare, education and criminal justice systems. Child abuse affects a community’s quality of life and economic prosperity.