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Effects of domestic violence on child’s brain

by Linda Hiller, staff writer

What effect does domestic violence have on a child’s developing brain? None? Some effect? A major effect?

You have no idea how much, said Deborah Van Bruggen, Family Support Council parent education coordinator, at a presentation on “Effects of Domestic Violence on the Child’s Developing Brain” Monday evening.

Violence can affect human brain development in the fetus, she said, and when developing brains are exposed to continual stress from verbal or physical abuse, it can affect the brain’s developing nerve connections and the actual growth of certain areas of the brain.

“Stress can actually happen in utero,” she said. “The baby responds to the mother’s physical stress – the higher blood pressure, heart rate and even her higher temperature. Their brain stem gets overwired.”

When a baby is born, Van Bruggen said, the brain’s functions are geared toward basic survival, with the brainstem and midbrain regions of the brain – governing body temperature regulation, heart rate, blood pressure, sleep, arousal, appetite – in dominance.

As a normal brain develops, she said, the limbic and cortical areas – seats for traits including motor regulation, emotional reactivity, sexual behavior, attachment, affiliation, concrete and abstract thought – grow through the increasing connections and increase in dominance.

When this development is interrupted by violence and stress, development is less than in a normal brain, and the individual’s behavior is affected.

“Kids from a violent environment actually have a higher heartbeat,” she said. “They are walking around half-irritated already – in fact, they’re half-irritated all the time.”

Those children are more likely to be the ones who just “go off” on the playground, knocking classmates off the slide when they get in the way, rather than reacting more reasonably, Van Bruggen said.

“They don’t think, they react,” she said. “And the severest of these become scary adults – they’re the Jeffrey Dahmers of the world. They can’t bond in a normal way – these children have a hard time having a normal life.”

n Often misdiagnosed. Van Bruggen said children who live in violent worlds are often misdiagnosed as attention-deficit disorder (ADD), attention-deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) or conduct disorder (CD).

“These kids often suffer from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which can include depression and responds to much different medicines than Ritalin, which is sometimes used in the ADD and ADHD kids,” she said. “I always tell people to get a diagnosis from a medical doctor who specializes in this kind of diagnosis and don’t rely on school counselors or teachers for a final diagnosis.”

Children with PTSD may appear anxious, behaviorally impulsive, hypervigilant, hyperactive, withdrawn or depressed, have sleep difficulties and an increased heart rate and/or blood pressure, she said.

To resolve PTSD, children need to be helped to realize that it is a normal reaction to crazy circumstances, and to deal with the anxiety and fear as it arises, she said. Mobilizing support from positive family members and teachers is important, as well as the discontinuation of violence if the child is to have a chance at normal brain development.

Many experts say the damage is already done by the teen years.

“I’m an optimist and don’t like to think these are lost cases,” she said. “We do know there is much that can be done through positive influences in a child’s life.”

n Remove the stress. Parents, family members and neighbors of children who are exposed to verbal and physical abuse should step in to help the child or children, Van Bruggen said.

Mothers (or fathers) in abusive homes who think it is better to raise children in an intact home with violence than an impoverished home with no violence should stop kidding themselves, she said.

“Don’t kid yourself that it isn’t affecting your children,” Van Bruggen said. “It is.”

She told of a child who was being raised by an alcoholic mother, and at the age of 3, he was removed from her care and put into a nurturing foster home. At three, his IQ tested at 70, in the retarded range, but by 6 -after three years in foster care – his IQ had risen to the normal range of 90.

“But the mom jumped through all the hoops and got custody of him again, and by the time he was 12, his IQ had fallen back to 70,” she said. “It shows that a stimulating environment stimulates the brain and a neglectful environment diminishes it.”

The sad fact, Van Bruggen said, is the fact that this kind of diminished brain development and the ensuing behavioral characteristics, are preventable.

“Remove the abuse and stress, and you remove the brain defects,” she said.

For more information on this subject, Van Bruggen has literature and a videotape.

Today, Oct. 18, from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., Rhonda Moore, animal control director for Douglas County, will be speaking on the “Correlation Between Domestic Violence and Animal Abuse,” at the Family Support Council office, 1225 Waterloo Lane, Suite A in Gardnerville. The public is welcome and refreshments will be served.

For more information, call 782-8692.