While you certainly can’t imagine hurting a child, abuse happens to millions of those under the age of 18 every single day. Every year, the National Children’s Alliance reports around 700,000 children are abused annually. And its even scarier to think kids under the age of 1 are the most likely to be victimized, with the parents often perpetrating the violence.
Many children receive the help they need — but others move through life in silence as to what went on. Psychologists and therapists now are wondering if there’s a way to identify the abuse early on, before the kids stay silent into adulthood. There’s one practice that some believe really works — but other professionals think it’s dangerous, unreliable, and too risky.
Abuse changes the brain in unique ways
As Joshua Gowin, Ph.D., notes on Psychology Today, the experiences you have in your first few years of life are of the utmost importance. If you’re nurtured and provided with opportunities for growth, you’re set up for a healthy adulthood. If abuse occurs, however, the affect this has on the brain can lead to lasting behavioral problems. It can also cause issues with memory and learning and increase the odds of developing a mental disorder later on.
Here’s something else disturbing: TIME reports abuse can leave parts of the brain underdeveloped. And this thinned brain tissue sometimes never fully recovers.
There are many signs of child abuse to be aware of
Not every child who’s been abused shows symptoms, especially if they’re older and fearful of their abuser. But there are a few general symptoms that WebMD says you should know.
If the child in question is very young, then they may be slower to socialize with other kids, or they may even start to lose skills they learned already. They may also show behavioral issues at home or at school, or have unusual interactions with their parents. Young kids may act afraid, violent, or uninterested in everything around them, while slightly older children may engage in risky behavior. As abused children reach adulthood, it’s not uncommon for them to develop PTSD.
Child psychologists are helpful for many kids
If you think someone may be hurting your child, psychologists who specialize in helping kids can be particularly useful. Houston Chronicle notes child psychologists exclusively work with those under the age of 18 to help resolve any behavioral or emotional issues. And if child abuse is occurring, they’re skilled in analyzing the situation and getting to the core of the problem.
Child psychologists may also refer kids to other specialists depending on their diagnosis. Or, they may recommend certain therapies or treatments during scheduled visits going forward. While some practices are standard, others are a little more experimental — and that’s where the controversy lies.
Disassociation is a common result of abuse
Anyone who’s gone through trauma can experience disassociation. Robert T. Muller, Ph.D., tells Psychology Today disassociation is actually a way of coping with severe stress. What happens is the brain allows you to feel detached from the traumatic event. You may even feel as if you’re in a fog, or you aren’t really present. It’s your brain’s way of keeping pain at bay.
Children who disassociate due to abuse or trauma may be prone to entering a trance-like state, where they stare at nothing or forget what they were just doing. And this can carry into adulthood as well. Many adults seek help from therapists, which is where the possibly dangerous practice comes into question.
The 1 uncertain practice: Recovered-memory therapy
We know disassociation happens — and it makes sense to assume some of us can’t remember our trauma. New Scientist explains some therapists are fans of recovered-memory therapy. Essentially, the therapist coaches the patient into remembering traumatic events that may be buried deep in the brain. Sometimes the patients are even hypnotized or put under tranquilizers so the professional providing the treatment can easily access those memories.
Here’s the problem, though: Most psychologists think repressed memories rarely happen. And it may actually cause the patients severe distress and further problems.
Why this type of therapy may be extremely dangerous and damaging
More research needs to happen to determine whether recovered-memory therapy is effective. But here’s what’s troubling: the American Psychological Association explains laboratory studies show memories aren’t always accurate, and people are easily swayed. Loved ones or therapists can convince patients they’re remembering events that never actually happened. This can cause the patient severe stress, and may lead to incriminating thoughts that aren’t real.
As far as child abuse is concerned, there is the theory that children may be more likely to have repressed memories due to how abuse affects the brain. But still, there’s not enough evidence to support this.
Court cases in the ’90s show the dangers of this therapy
Repressed memories made national headlines in the past. In the ’80s and ’90s, children claimed satanic cults abused them. Though it caused widespread outrage and panic, officials deemed the claims false after all.Out of 84 satanic abuse claims, no physical evidence existed to back them up. It turns out misguided social workers may have questioned the children in such a way that induced these wrong memories.
Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus performed studies showing it’s possible to induce false memories, too. By convincing subjects an event occurred and then asking them to imagine it happening, about a third of the subjects came away with memories of the nonexistent event after repeated sessions.
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