Early Exposure to Violence Changes Kids' Chromosomes

Sunday, May 5, 2013
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A very interesting study was published in the April 2013 journal of Molecular Psychiatry. The study, titled Exposure to Violence During Childhood is Associated with Telomere Erosion from 5 to 10 Years of Age: a Longitudinal Study, is quite complicated and very scientific. I don't want to get bogged down in the molecular science behind this groundbreaking study. However, if the results are accurate they strongly suggest that early exposure to violence causes permanent, physical damage to a child's genetics and developing brain.

I have frequently seen evidence of this in my clinical practice. A number of children have come to my clinic who were extremely emotional, hyperactive, and were previously diagnosed with ADHD, Bipolar Disorder, or any number of other psychiatric diagnoses. These children may appear to be filled with rage, anger, and deep psychological pain - often leading to seemingly uncontrollable violent fits. I have long suspected that these "different" children had something more than could be explained by mental illness alone - that their brains were somehow "wired" differently from those of their peers, even those with significant mental illness. This study strengthens the notion that children exposed to early violence are not only psychologically different, but their genetics have in fact been changed as a result.

Perhaps this study will help dispense with the question of "nature versus nurture." It may in fact be both nature and nurture, with one greatly influencing the other. So how can this knowledge be used to help children? This goes beyond the scope of an In the News segment, but a few issues do immediately come to mind:

  • Social services agencies should recognize that children living in domestically violent situations are being directly harmed and serious interventions need to take place immediately
  • Rather than attempting to "diagnose" these violence-exposed children with Bipolar Disorder or ADHD and pumping them full of sedating medications, perhaps what they really need is a loving, nurturing home
  • Our society needs to seriously consider the detrimental effects of domestic violence on children and act instead of giving abusers chance after chance after chance to "reform"

Let's stop giving abusive caregivers excuses and use real science to back up the need to get children out of violent homes. I've seen too many childrens' lives ruined by domestic violence, and this study largely proves what we have already intuitively known - exposure to violence has permanent, detrimental effects on children.

-Dr. Tim