What has been learned about childhood abuse’s impact on the brain will hopefully lead to new ideas for treatment. The most immediate conclusion, however, is the crucial need for prevention. If childhood maltreatment exerts enduring negative effects on the developing brain, fundamentally altering one’s mental capacity and personality, it may be possible to compensate for these abnormalities – to succeed in spite of them.
The costs to society are enormous. Psychiatric patients who have suffered from childhood or neglect are far more difficult and costly to treat than patients with a healthy childhood. Furthermore, childhood maltreatment can be an essential ingredient in the makeup of violent individuals predisposing them to bouts of irritable aggression.
One consequence of childhood maltreatment is limbic irritability, which tends to produce dysphoria (chronic low-level unhappiness), aggression and violence toward oneself or others. Even into adulthood, drugs can be useful in alleviating this set of symptoms. Drugs that affect the serotonin system can help.
Society reaps what it sows in nurturing its children. Whether abuse of a child is physical, psychological, or sexual, it sets off a ripple of hormonal changes that wire the child’s brain to cope with a malevolent world. It predisposes the child to have a biological basis for fear, thought s/he may act and pretend otherwise. Early abuse molds the brain to be more irritable, impulsive, suspicious, and prone to be swamped by fight-or-flight reactions that the rational mind may be unable to control. The brain is programmed to a state of defensive adaptation, enhancing survival in a world of constant danger, but at a terrible price.
Pundits are quick to coin catchphrases like the “abuse excuse” to dismiss childhood trauma’s pervasive and enduring consequences for behavior. This is as unthinking as the exhortation to “get over it.” Childhood trauma is not a passing psychological slight that one can choose to ignore. Even if the abused person comes to terms with the traumatic memories and chooses (for the sake of sanity) to forgive the perpetrator, this will not reverse the neurobiological abnormalities.
If we know that the roots of violence are fertilized by childhood abuse, can we make a long-term commitment to reduce violence by focusing on our children. What if we set a goal of reducing the cases of childhood abuse and neglect by 50 percent a year? What if we monitored statistics on childhood abuse as avidly as we track housing starts, inflation, or baseball scores?
Our brains are sculpted by our early experiences. Maltreatment is a chisel that shapes a brain to contend with strife, but at the cost of deep, enduring wounds. Childhood abuse isn’t something you “get over.” It is an evil that we must acknowledge and confront if we aim to do anything about the unchecked cycle of violence in this country.
 Wounds That Time Won’t Heal, The Neurobiology of Child Abuse, Martin H. Telcher M.D. Ph.D, The Dana Foundation, October 1, 2000