Children who live with domestic violence at risk of later life anxiety

Children who live with domestic violence at risk of later life anxiety

By Liz Lockhart

A new study suggests that when children have experienced family violence, their brains become ‘tuned’ for processing sources of threats.  The study also suggests that this is the same pattern of brain activity as seen previously in servicemen exposed to combat.

The researchers say that this study is the first to use functional brain imaging to explore the effect of physical abuse or domestic violence on the emotional development of children.

‘Enhanced reactivity to a biologically salient threat cue such as anger may represent an adaptive response for these children in the short term, helping keep them out of danger,’ said Aemon McCrory of University College London.

‘However, it may also constitute an underlying neurobiological risk factor increasing their vulnerability to later mental health problems, and particularly anxiety,’ he added.

It is already established that abuse and maltreatment is one of the strongest environmental risk factors associated with anxiety and depression.  However, McCrory said ‘Relatively little is known how such adversity ‘gets under the skin’ and increases a child’s later vulnerability, even into adulthood.’

Children with exposure to violence in the home are different in their brain response to angry faces versus sad faces, the study shows.  When children with a history of abuse are presented with angry faces they show heightened activity in the brain’s anterior insula and amygdala.  These are regions which are area involved in detecting threat and anticipating pain.

The brain changes do not reflect damage to the brain, McCrory says.  The patters are representative of the brain’s way of adapting to a dangerous and challenging environment.  Unfortunately these changes may occur at the cost of increased vulnerability to later stress.

According to the study a significant minority of children are exposed to domestic violence although the findings may not have immediate practical implications for them. 

McCrory says ‘This underlines the importance of taking seriously the impact for a child living in a family characterised by violence.  Even if such a child is not showing overt signs of anxiety or depression, these experiences still appear to have a measurable effect at the neural level.’ 

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