I was moved to write about giving children the science of the brain to break the cycles after reading Sarah Childress’s June 24, 2014, article, “As Child Abuse Persists at Spirit Lake, Congress Steps In,” appearing on the PBS.org Frontline page. And please know, I’m not trying to overly-simplify here and that what I share next is universally relevant to all children, parents and caregivers, not just those referenced in the linked article.
Child Abuse, Childhood Trauma and Changed Brain Circuitry
Often the reason child abuse (verbal, physical, emotional abuse; neglect) happens is because of alcohol misuse and the related drinking behaviors and untreated secondhanddrinking (SHD) in the home or one’s social environment, which in turn is often a consequence of those individual’s (the ones misusing alcohol or experiencing untreated SHD) still carrying the scars of their own untreated child abuse.
Child abuse changes a child’s brain circuitry – it changes brain circuitry! [And it's not just child abuse that changes brain circuitry. It can be childhood trauma, such as a parent's death or untreated mental illness, or a child's traumatic brain injury, or incarceration of a family member or witnessing domestic violence against mother, as examples. Of note: with many of these, however, there is a causal connection with alcohol misuse - see NCADD's page, Alcohol and Crime, for statistics.]
Not only does child abuse change brain circuitry, but the brain’s developmental processes occurring ages 12-25 are when a teen / young adult’s brain wires most of their teen and adult coping skills as embedded brain maps. These coping skills might include lashing out when triggered by anger or drinking to minimize the feelings associated with despair or short-circuiting healthier lifestyle options because the neural network wiring necessary to succeed in those options were not the neural networks being used, therefore strengthened.
Using the Science of the Brain to Help Children Use the Power of Their Brain to Control Their Lives
It is a vicious cycle, to be sure, but one of the key components for breaking it is helping children understand what’s “really” going on and that requires helping children (and their parents or care givers) understand they (children) don’t have the brain wiring to make sense of what makes no sense, e.g., a parent’s or care giver’s drinking behaviors and SHD behaviors, nor to understand their parents / care giver’s behaviors are not a reflection of their (the child’s) core self. We must then help children understand what they can and cannot do to protect themselves – to protect their brains – in spite of it all.
The brain controls EVERYTHING a person thinks, feels, says and does. Thus it’s critical we start helping children of all ages understand the power of their brain and the power they can exert over their brain, therefore their lives. One way is to use “The Science of Why” (designed for use in workplaces as a means of informing adults of these many interconnected concepts) and “The Power of the Brain” (designed for use with youth and school education programs), which places the messages squarely where they belong – as something applicable to all of us. Another is to embrace programs like those described in this article, Culture of Health: Building Resilience to Undo Childhood Trauma.
It’s never too late to change, to heal, to rewire one’s brain. Neuroplasticity is just another of the wonders of the brain now coming to light with the new brain and addiction-related research. When a person understands and embraces this new research, they can change their lives. It’s never too late. I know. I didn’t start my own Secondhand Drinking recovery until my 5th decade.
BUT, it’s never too early, either.
Let’s give our children a better chance of living “their” lives in spite of what’s happening around them. Let’s help them understand the power of their brain.
[P.S. - The information shared in this article holds true for drug misuse and the related drug misuse behaviors and untreated secondhand drugging.]
Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Study (one of the largest investigations ever conducted to assess associations between childhood maltreatment and later-life health and well-being)