During the first two years of life, development is rapid. A child progresses from helpless newborn to a walking, talking child with independent ideas and opinions. While the changes on the outside are the most obvious, there are also significant developments in the brain.
A new study investigated the impact of witnessing trauma or experiencing abuse on brain development during the first two years of a child’s life. The study’s findings appear in a recent issue of the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.
The study found that when a child is abused or sees the abuse of another person early in life, they may experience problems with intellectual development. The trauma, according to the researchers, is most severe on cognitive processes, when violence is witnessed during the first two years of the child’s life.
The study focused on 206 American children who were tested for intellectual processes at the ages of 2, 5 and 8 years old. They were also evaluated for signs of neglect, experiences of sexual, physical or emotional abuse, and experiences witnessing abuse against their mother.
The researchers found that about one-third (37 percent) of the children evaluated had been victims of abuse or had witnessed abuse by the age of five. In approximately five percent of children, the abuse or witnessing of abuse had occurred before the age of two. In about 13 percent of children, the trauma was during preschool, and 19 percent of the children experienced trauma throughout early childhood.
Violence against a child’s mother was associated with signs of intellectual problems. Those who had been a victim of abuse or had witnessed abuse of their mother had below-normal scores on examinations of intellectual development. The children who experienced the trauma during the first two years exhibited the lowest scores.
The researchers at Children’s Hospital Boston, led by Michelle Bosquet Enlow, explain that violence during the first two years of life is associated with major problems in cognitive development. This was true even after accounting for several other risk factors.
The researchers accounted for various factors, such as socioeconomic status, birth complications and mother’s IQ. These are all variables that may impact intelligence levels in children. However, the results remained the same, indicating that those who witnessed or experienced violence scored an average of seven points lower than kids who were not exposed to violence.
The authors also note that while the study does show an association between early experiences of trauma and intelligence, there was no causal relationship determined by the study. The study was designed only to examine a possible link. Further research is necessary to determine whether there is a causal relationship.
The authors explain that because of the rapid brain development taking place in early childhood, the violence experienced in the first few years of life could be connected with lifelong challenges.