Leadership (Abuja)

23 December 2011

Nigeria: Violent Homes Could Trigger Children's Mental Illness

Photo: G. Cranston/IRIN
Domestic violence is often not well documented.

Although many parents deliberately avoid beating their children as a sign of love and protection. Incessant squabbles between husbands and wives could be as damaging as physical assaults on children because a child's emotional security is affected by the relationship between the parents. RALIAT AHMED writes

Psychologists have long held the view that a strong child-parent bond is the key to a child's mental health and social adjustment. It is therefore very important for children to feel secure about their parents' relationship with each other.

When children witness domestic violence they are at a greater risk of anxiety and depression in later life, says a new study.

In the study, scientists carried out magnetic resonance imaging brain scans on 20 children with an average age of 12 who had been exposed to documented violence at home.

While in the scanner, the children were shown pictures of male and female faces with sad, calm or angry expressions. Their patterns of the brain activity were compared with those of 23 matched children with no history of family violence.

The children exposed to violence responded in a distinct way to angry faces, the study found. Their brains showed heightened activation in two regions associated with threat detection, the anterior insula (part of the brain that integrates autonomic information) and amygdala (plays a key role in the processing of emotions). They are both associated with anxiety disorders, the researchers pointed out.

Previous research has shown a similar pattern in the brains of soldiers exposed to violent combat situations.

The scans suggest both combat veteran soldiers and children who witness violence tune their brains to be hyper-aware of environmental danger.

According to the lead author of the study, Dr Eamon McCrory, they are now beginning to understand how child abuse influences functioning of the brain's emotional systems. This research is important because it provides our first clues as to how regions in the child's brain may adapt to early experiences of abuse in the home.

According to McCrory, enhanced reactivity to a biologically salient threat such as anger may represent an adaptive response for these children in the short term, helping keep them out of danger. However, it may also constitute an underlying neurobiological risk factor increasing their vulnerability to later mental health problems, and particularly anxiety.

In most cases, parents don't realise that children are sensitive to their conflicts but studies reveal that they are sensitive at very early ages - starting at one year at least. One research even suggests that babies as young as six months react to the stress of raised voices and angry interchanges. Children are like emotional Geiger counters with regard to their parents' relationship. If parents really resolve things, children will know it and if they don't they will know that too.

Another study on the issue of child development shows that children in high-conflict homes have much more restless sleep and daytime sleepiness. The more unresolved the parental conflicts, the more disrupted the child's sleep.

Mr Olusola Agbaje, a psychologist explains: "Most children carry lasting images of their parents' fighting from their childhood into adulthood as these memories of particular fights can traumatise them and stay with them forever".

Agbaje points out that, if there is physical abuse in the home, the images of parents fighting will remain indelible. "For children, living in a home where parents fight regularly and violence becomes a part of everyday life, it is like living in a war zone".

According to the psychologist, when children are brought up in a home where the parents fighting is out of control, their security is threatened and they feel out of control of anything in their young lives. The trauma from the memories of the fighting can cause the children of fighting parents to avoid relationships or marriage because they fear repeating the cycle.

In some cases, the children grow up, enter into relationships and carry on with their parents' cycle," Agbaje adds.

Another psychologist, Ms Pauline Okojie explains: "If parents fight often, the effect trickles down to the children because they see parents as role models they can depend on. So it is emotionally unsettling for children to see their parents fight as this type of behaviour can result in children having mental health problems, immediately or later in life as they grow".

Okojie also notes that parent's fights or arguments in homes affect the children in a number of negative ways. For instance, a child's sense of family belonging can be undermined along with their confidence and self-esteem. Another problem that could result is that trust is betrayed as children witness adults breaking rules that they have been encouraged to abide by, and this can be very confusing for children to experience.

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