The words “child abuse” are likely to conjure up horror stories that appear from time to time – physical beatings, a child locked in a closet or tied up for long periods; or the unimaginable – like Ariel Castro’s imprisonment of young girls. But in fact, abuse takes many forms, beyond the physical. Recent research finds that its impact is long lasting. It extends far into adulthood, where it affects both physical and mental health. As Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
But this same study, combined with the findings of some other recent research, contains hopeful signs for healing and healthy growth following early abuse.
First, consider some less visible forms of abuse, beyond the physical, that can create lasting consequences. For example, parental neglect; indifference to the child’s needs or temperament; outright humiliation; deliberate denigration. All may be fueled by the parent’s own self-hatred, jealousy, or narcissism.
Examples range from the parent who leaves a child in the car or home alone for hours. Or the parent who rebuffs the child who excitedly says, “look at my new drawing!” or “see what I wrote for this school project!” and who receives a curt, “Don’t bother me now. I’ve got to finish up this report.” Or the parent who consistently and vocally praises one child, while ignoring or criticizing the child’s sibling. And there’s the classic, “You’ll never amount to anything!” Or, why can’t you be more like your sister/brother?”
I’ve heard them all, and more. All take a toll, and this new research study confirms that abuse has a long shelf life. It takes a continuing toll on both physical and mental health well into adulthood. The study, conducted by researchers at UCLA and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, examined the effects of abuse and corresponding lack of parental affection across the body’s entire regulatory system. It found strong links between negative early life experiences and health, across the board. The effects permeate one’s entire mind-body system
This study of 756 subjects suggested that “biological embedding” occurs through programming brain circuitry in ways that shape response patterns to subsequent stress. That causes wear and tear extending across multiple mind-body systems, and creates adverse health outcomes decades later. The researchers suggest that toxic childhood stress alters neural responses to stress, boosting the emotional and physical arousal to threat, and making it more difficult for that reaction to be shut off.
Signs of Hope
And yet, something encouraging emerged from this study, and it joins with findings from two other studies about parents and children. The UCLA study found that the presence of a loving, parental figure can provide protection to the abused child. According to the study’s report, “It is well recognized that providing children in adverse circumstances with a nurturing relationship is beneficial for their overall wellbeing. Our findings suggest that a loving relationship may also prevent the rise in biomarkers indicative of disease risk across numerous physiological systems.”
According to Judith E. Carroll, the study’s lead author, “If the child has love from parental figures they may be more protected from the impact of abuse on adult biological risk for health problems than those who don’t have that loving adult in their life.” That is, those who reported higher amounts of parental warmth and affection in their childhood had lower multisystem health risks. Moreover, the researchers found “a significant interaction of abuse and warmth, so that individuals reporting low levels of love and affection and high levels of abuse in childhood had the highest multisystem risk in adulthood.”
Their findings suggest that “parental warmth and affection protect one against the harmful effects of toxic childhood stress.” That’s good news, and it links with another recent finding that touching and stroking contribute to a healthy sense of self.
That is, according to this study, affectionate physical contact, “…characterized by a slow caress or stroke — often an instinctive gesture from a mother to a child or between partners in romantic relationships — may increase the brain’s ability to construct a sense of body ownership and, in turn, play a part in creating and sustaining a healthy sense of self.”
Such touching seems to play a role in how the brain learns to construct a mental picture and an understanding of the body, which ultimately helps to create a coherent sense of self, according to a summary of the findings. On the negative side, the absence of such experiences are linked with various physical and emotional disorders. “As affective touch is typically received from a loved one, these findings further highlight how close relationships…play a crucial role in the construction of a sense of self,” said Laura Crucianelli, the lead researcher.
Another illustration of the interconnections between the mind, body, and the network of relationships of which one is a part, is a study finding that a positive, mutually supportive and sensitive love relationship was associated with positive, supportive and nurturing behavior towards one’s children.
The study’s lead author, Abigail Millings of the University of Bristol, commented in a research summary that researchers sought to examine how caregiving plays out in families: “…how one relationship affects another relationship. We wanted to see how romantic relationships between parents might be associated with what kind of parents they are. Our work is the first to look at romantic caregiving and parenting styles at the same time.”
The research found – no surprise – that “a common skill set underpins caregiving across different types of relationships, and for both mothers and fathers. If you can do responsive caregiving, it seems that you can do it across different relationships.”
Millings added, ”It might be the case that practicing being sensitive and responsive — for example, by really listening and by really thinking about the other person’s perspective — to our partners will also help us to improve these skills with our kids.”
I think the upshot of this and other findings is that they provide more empirical confirmation that everything is connected in our lives. How we think, feel, relate, and behave are all part of an interconnected whole. To that point, evidence continues to mount that humans are hardwired for empathy and connection. It’s our natural state, but its expression may become stunted or deformed by our life experiences. One example is a recent University of Virginia study, published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging brain scans (fMRIs), if found that we experience people who we become close to as though they are our own selves. “It’s essentially a breakdown of self and other; our self comes to include the people we become close to,” said lead research James Coan.
The problem is that our life experiences often generate diminished self-worth, fragmentation, isolation, or retreat into ego attachments that disconnect us from ourselves, within; and from others. Despite our surface differences and conflicts we are one, beneath those differences, like organs of the same body. That reality – if we practice it – has the power not only to heal damage to young lives, but also to enhance greater health and wellbeing for all lives, young and old.
A version of this article previously appeared in Psychology Today.