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January 2002Vol. 3, No. 1Hazards of Child Maltreatment on Developing Brains

Two new resources published by the National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information explain how child maltreatment negatively impacts early brain development during infancy and early childhood.

In Focus: Understanding the Effects of Maltreatment on Early Brain Development, explores recent developments in the scientific understanding of early brain development. In discussing the biology of brain growth, the report notes that the brain's "plasticity," or the influence of environment, plays a larger role than previously thought in the development of a child's brain.

In examining the effects of maltreatment on brain development, the document illustrates how children learn to cope. "When babies' cries bring food or comfort, they are strengthening the neural pathways that help them learn how to get their needs met, both physically and emotionally," states the document. "But babies who do not get responses to their cries, and babies whose cries are met with abuse, learn different lessons." This chronic stress caused by abuse or neglect will derail the brain's resources for learning and focus them instead on survival. The report highlights a number of biological reactions to stress, such as:

  • Hyper-arousal or automatic fear response
  • Dissociation or withdrawal
  • Disrupted attachment or impaired emotional relationships.

Additionally, the document addresses other influences on brain formation, including malnutrition and prenatal exposure to alcohol and other drugs. It also details the various mental health problems that can result from abuse and neglect during a child's first few years.

The document concludes with implications of these new findings for practice and policy, and recommendations for further research. For example, professionals and caregivers who work with abused and neglected children need to be educated on the effects of maltreatment on early brain development and effective interventions. Furthermore, comprehensive assessments of all children in the child welfare system would lead to better-tailored treatment.

An accompanying resource listing features State programs and organizations that provide training and other information related to early brain development.

Access a copy of In Focus: Understanding the Effects of Maltreatment on Early Brain Development in HTML or PDF formats at:

For a copy of Resources Related to Early Brain Development, visit: http://

For print copies, contact:

National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information
330 C St., SW
Washington, DC 20447
Phone: 703-385-7565
Toll-free: 800-FYI-3366

Related Items

See the following related articles in these past issues of the Children's Bureau Express:

  • "Abuse Can Permanently 'Rewire' Children's Brains" (March/April 2001)
  • "Study Calls for Reexamining How We Treat Young Children" (January/February 2001)

Visit the website of the Child Trauma Academy for free online courses, such as "The Amazing Human Brain and Human Development" offered in November 2001, and a narrated slide presentation on brain organization and function (