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The Impact of Child Maltreatment on Human Development

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The human brain is a vast and highly complex organ, which develops at an impressive

pace during the first few years of life. The development of the brain into its different

compartments is based, not only through genetics, but also through environmental experiences

and events. The brain is comprised of different sections that control various bodily processes,

and these different sections are, in turn, comprised of over hundreds of billions of interconnected

pathways of neurons or nerve cells. From during the prenatal period, new synapses (gaps

between neurons) are formed, and those that are not stimulated enough are broken away or

pruned. This pruning of synapses continues into the post-natal aspect of life to from the mature

Mechanisms for the disruption of the neurological development of a person are

multitudinous. Two relevant mechanisms include a lack of sensory experiences during the

critical years for brain development and through maltreatment which creates abnormal patterns

of neural activity, which may affect the regions of the brain responsible for major thought

processes, empathy, emotions and attachment (Berk, 2007). These mechanisms can be traced

biologically to the body's initial response to stress. When the body is under stress, there is a

natural response produced by the body termed fight-or-flight that prepares the body to defend

itself either by staying and fighting or by running away. During these periods of stress, the body

releases a hormone called cortisol, which at high levels cause death of brain cells, a reduction in

the number of neural synapses and eventually a decrease in brain size.

Chronic stress interferes with the brain's capability to function optimally, with additional

long-term consequences on physical and psychological health. It creates abnormal neural

pathways in which the body's responses to fear become fixed, ensuring that the child is always

on alert. As a result, the child may have difficulty with affect regulation (the identification and

control of their emotions), vulnerability to stress and challenging situations and the tendency to

develop unhealthily-dependent relationships. These factors may continue on and develop into

more severe features of trauma such as dissociation, cognitive disorders, an extremely negative

self-image, and behavioural regulation issues.

According to Albert Bandura's Social Cognitive Theory, behaviour patterns are

learned through the imitation of role models. This imitation, or modelling, gradually affects



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