A recent study in Current Biology explores the ways in which exposure to family violence changes children’s brains. Exposure to violence in the household includes physical abuse, which is experienced by between 4 and 16% of children, and intimate partner violence, which is witnessed by between 8 and 25% of children. The study used MRIs to compare the responses of children exposed to family violence with those of children not exposed to family violence when shown pictures of angry, neutral and sad faces.
When shown the angry face, children who had experienced family violence showed greater reactivity in both the amygdala, which moderates emotional responses and preparation for stress, and the anterior insula (AI), which works with the amygdala to anticipate pain, than children who had not experienced family violence. Although this heightened response may be beneficial when faced with an immediate threat, previous research links increased reactivity in these areas of the brain to several anxiety disorders.The authors suggest that this hypervigilance may limit a child’s ability to master certain social skills and may even predispose children to future aggression. The study did not include children with symptoms of depression or anxiety disorders, implying that there are neurological consequences of family violence even in children without mental health symptoms.