According to the World Health Organization, over the past year, it is estimated that up to 1 billion children aged 2 to 17 have been victims of child abuse.
Behind this expression are physical abuse (battering of children), emotional abuse (damage to self-esteem), sexual abuse and neglect. To this must be added children who are exposed to childhood trauma, linked to violent situations, such as war zones. These various forms of child abuse and trauma are unfortunately common: for example, it is estimated that globally the prevalence is around 12.7% for sexual abuse alone.
However, the consequences of this abuse are felt for years, even decades, and even continue beyond the victims' lives.
Child abuse has lasting consequences
The consequences of childhood abuse are devastating since they induce alterations in the emotional, cognitive and social functioning of subjects, alterations which persist once the victims have become adults.
The consequences may not only be psychiatric pathologies such as generalized anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress states, addictions, but also metabolic pathologies such as obesity. So, 46% of adults suffering from depression report being victims of abuse as children, which is a very high rate. Furthermore, some victims of abuse reproduce what they suffered as children, and become predators in turn.
Interestingly, these alterations in psychological functioning were identified not only in cases where the mistreatment resulted in physical violence (beating, rape), but also in cases where the acts of mistreatment were not associated to physical harm, as is the case with emotional abuse or neglect. These effects are persistent over the long term since they can be transmitted over several generations, in particular through an attachment deficit.
Therefore, we can wonder if the after-effects of various forms of mistreatment induce biological consequences, in addition to psychological consequences.
Childhood abuse has biological consequences
The facts regarding potential biological effects of childhood abuse are well documented. We know in particular that Childhood abuse and trauma induce an increase in markers of inflammation and stress hormones. They are also associated with alterations in gene expression which persist into adulthood.
In addition, morphological and functional brain alterations were also observed, like a decreased volume of the prefrontal cortex (an area important for emotion regulation, action planning, cognitive flexibility) and the hippocampus (an area important for memory) or increased activity in the amygdala (an area involved in anxiety and stress). Furthermore, an alteration in the connection between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala has also been observed, which probably explains the difficulties in emotional regulation.
The consequences of mistreatment also result in changes at the cellular level, such as alterations in oligodendrocytes (the cells which form the sheath surrounding the bundles of cerebral fibers) in a subpart of the prefrontal cortex, which attests both to the fact that mistreatment induces lasting morphological changes, and to their functional impact.
It is important to emphasize that these biological changes are not transient and limited to the period of childhood, but that they alter the development of the subject and persist until adulthood, or even well beyond, also influencing on the descendants of the victims.
Long-lasting biological consequences
It has been shown that some of the biological alterations resulting from childhood abuse can be transmitted to subsequent generations, that is to say to the children, or even the grandchildren of people exposed to abuse and violence.
This is the case, for example, of the effects on stress hormones, the high level of which is found in descendants of mothers who suffered childhood trauma ; it is the same for certain brain alterations. Otherwise, alteration of gene expression can be transmitted over several generations.
This makes one dizzy when one thinks of certain family contexts, but also of war situations, since the vicious circle of violence can thus be perpetuated from generation to generation, endangering social cohesion between people - and peoples? - in an endless cycle.
Is the situation hopeless?
Fortunately, it is not completely hopeless. Effective measures exist to stimulate resilience, such as social support at school or during extracurricular activities. Certain psychotherapies, such as cognitive-behavioral therapies, or participation in inclusive programs and psychosocial interventions involving entire communities, have also proven themselves.
We must therefore be vigilant in making them available in the communities most at risk, particularly in countries that have been confronted with situations of armed violence. This could be one of the levers to achieve lasting peace.
The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of InfoChrétienne.