Brain scans show the staggering impact of emotional abuse on toddler brain development

emotional abuse kids brain scan

At least 1 in 7 children experience child abuse and/or neglect every year. And that’s likely an understatement.

In the United States alone, 674,000 kids were recorded to be victims of maltreatment in 2017—giving the country one of the worst records among industrialized nations.

The fact that emotional abuse creates adverse long-term psychological and mental effects is no longer breaking news. But studies have begun to explore exactly how emotional abuse causes real brain damage.

One study conducted by Texas Children’s Hospital chief of psychiatry Bruce Perry shows the staggering impact emotional abuse can do to a toddler’s brain development.

Take a look at these brain scans:

emotional abuse kids brain scan

Bruce D Perry/The Child Trauma Academy

The CT scan on the left shows a normal child’s brain while the one on the right is the brain of a child who suffered from severe emotional trauma.

While the image on the left shows a “healthy 3-year-old with an average head size,” the one on the right is that of an emotionally abused toddler. Both are 3 years old when the scans were taken.

According to Perry:

“The image on the right is from a 3-year-old child suffering from severe sensory-deprivation neglect. This child’s brain is significantly smaller than average and has enlarged ventricles and cortical atrophy.”

Why is there so much harm in emotional abuse in childhood?

The bottom line?

Damage created during this crucial stage of life results in memory problems and brain developmental delays.

Cortical Atrophy, for example, is something you commonly see in an older person’s brain, specifically ones who suffer in Alzheimer’s disease—not a 3-year old’s.

While it is known that physical abuse in childhood can lead to brain damage, life-long problems, or even death, the effects of emotional abuse are rarely talked about.

But emotional abuse is perhaps even more damaging than physical abuse because as Perry explains, our brain’s major developments occur in early childhood.

He says:

“The neural systems responsible for mediating our cognitive, emotional, social and physiological functioning develop in childhood and, therefore, childhood experiences play a major role in shaping the functional capacity of these systems.

“When the necessary experiences are not provided at the optimal times, these neural systems do not develop in optimal ways.”

Long-term negative effects of emotional trauma experienced in childhood

Emotional and psychological abuse refers to behaviors, speech, and actions of parents or caregivers that create a negative mental impact on a child’s life.

Here are some effects children are likely to carry out into adulthood if intervention does not occur. (Even then, damage may have already been likely done.)

1. Major Depressive Disorder

Among many of its long-term effects, emotional abuse can lead to a tendency towards major depressive disorder. 

A study by the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine suggests that childhood trauma is linked to “abnormal connectivity in the brain in adults with major depressive disorder.”

Lead author Yvette Sheline explains:

“This study not only confirms the important relationship between childhood trauma and major depression, but also links patients’ experiences of childhood trauma with specific functional brain network abnormalities. This suggests a possible environmental contributor to neurobiological symptoms.”

2. Post-traumatic Stress Disorder

A difficult childhood can also lead to a post-traumatic disorder.

Emotional abuse is particularly damaging to a child because this is a time in their lives where they are most vulnerable.

Even if events are not really life-threatening, children—who don’t yet have the psychological capacity to properly assess danger—see it as such. And the psychological damage is just as significant.

One study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that the PTSD we experience in childhood is distinctly different from other kinds of PTSD we experience in later life.

Researchers suggest that genetic traits of people with childhood PTSD can last a lifetime, or may even pass to a generation. Meanwhile, PTSD experienced in later life tend to be more short-lived, and do not alter genetic functions.

3. Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Emotional childhood abuse may also lead to Generalized Anxiety Disorder. GAD is characterized as persistent and unreasonable worry about a number of things in life.

Various studies have explored the extent of the psychological impact of emotional abuse. Among them is the inability to regulate stress and emotions, which, among others, can cause severe anxiety.

According to psychotherapist Amy Morin:

“Sometimes children believe they missed warning signs predicting the traumatic event. In an effort to prevent future traumas, they become hyper-vigilant in looking for warning signs that something bad is going to happen again.”


Child abuse is something we should be taking seriously. A 2016 study shows that childhood abuse victims are 2 to 3 times more likely to attempt suicide in later life.

According to University of Manchester professor Dr. Maria Panagioti:

 “Around one adult in every three has experienced abuse as a child. This study conclusively gives us solid evidence that childhood abuse and neglect is associated with increased likelihood that they will be at risk of suicide as adults.

And that’s just a healthcare implication. Child abuse affects a country economically, too. In the United States alone, Dr. Panagioti says, the economic burden of child maltreatment can shoot up to about $124 billion.

As for treatment, Dr. Panagioti claims that Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is best for dealing with childhood trauma.

She adds, however:

“But that assumes people will seek help themselves. This research identifies that people who are not under the care of clinicians are at risk.

“So, we need a new approach to identify these people and to focus our efforts on effective community intervention.”

For now, various NGOs and government agencies are hard at work when it comes to dealing with child abuse. If you are someone who is suffering from the effects of an unhealthy childhood environment, please know that it’s something you do not have to deal with alone.

Various resources are available at your disposal. Contact your local community to learn more.

Picture of Genefe Navilon

Genefe Navilon

Genefe Navilon is a writer, poet, and blogger. She graduated with a degree in Mass Communications at the University of San Jose Recoletos. Her poetry blog, Letters To The Sea, currently has 18,000 followers. Her work has been published in different websites and poetry book anthologies. She divides her time between traveling, writing, and working on her debut poetry book.

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