April 26, 2024

Child Abuse Prevention Month: What is Emotional Abuse & Neglect? (Part Two)

Written by Dr. Sandy Portko, Early Childhood Expertise

Sandy Portko
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This is part two to a blog about emotional abuse and neglect in children. Click here to read Part One!

The previous blog covered examples of different kinds of abuse and neglect and briefly addressed the damage such traumas can produce. An obvious question reader might ask is “How do we know these events cause damage?” Psychological and medical researchers have been studying various events that can occur during one’s life for over 30 years. They have discovered that experiencing the trauma of abuse and neglect produces actual changes in the way the brain develops, the greater the trauma, the greater the brain differences. Fortunately, they also discovered that these changes can be modified by changing the quality of the interactions between these infants and toddlers and their caregivers. The earlier intervention takes place, the greater the modification of the brain to more typical function pathways. 

The stress produced by the trauma of abuse and neglect changes the brain by increasing connections to the areas of the brain that react to negative emotions such as fear or anger by stimulating withdrawing or ‘freezing’ actions. The areas of the brain that allow an individual to make plans, learn to problem solve, and gradually understand outcomes of different actions (these are called executive functions) are underdeveloped because of trauma. The interventions teach the caregivers ways of providing loving touch, nurturing, recognizing how infants signal needs, using their voices as soothing devices, maintaining visual and verbal communication and conversations which create new pathways in the brain to strengthen areas responsible for positive emotions, and the executive functions. The caregivers are helped to recognize their own traumas, given tools to help deal with the trauma and the stress it produces, and provided with knowledge about parenting and child development. The goal is to stop whatever abuse and neglect occurring by recognizing the signs and providing caregivers with the tools for changing behaviors as early as possible. These tools are also directed toward helping caregivers develop resilience so they can continue to interact with their children more effectively and consistently.  

Researchers have also learned that communities where the residents have close, friendly, helping relationships with each other have lower levels of child abuse and neglect even if they have lower levels of income. Residents of these areas express feelings of being connected instead of feeling isolated and typically can identify a few neighbors they feel they could ask for help in an emergency.  The neighborhood is also a means of sharing information about local events. The residents of such communities look out for each other by being aware of comings and goings in the neighborhood, noting who might have been ill or suffered an accident. Communities such as these provide residents with a sense of support which tends to increase feelings of well-being and can contribute to the development of resilience. 

Many such communities existed prior to the pandemic lockdowns and the work now is to help build them up again. Family Futures is one of the local organizations helping support this development by offering Parent Cafes and holding training sessions to help develop more group leaders. Family Futures also offers programs to families with young children that provide information about child development, parenting, learning enrichment activities, referrals to resources, and individual guidance from personal ‘navigators’ or coaches. Our goal is to help Kent County residents become a community that supports each other in our efforts to prevent child abuse and neglect. 



Thanks for reading! 

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