Children need to be protected at the earliest ages

There is a capital campaign going on right now to help fund the Boys & Girls Club. The Boys & Girls Club provides after-school care with structured programming to educate children and foster their educational and psychological needs.

A diverse group of children is served by the club. Additional care is directed toward at-risk and abused children. This club is an essential service that our community provides for many children, and is likely a life-saver to some kids. Please consider contacting the club to donate money.

These types of social support and prevention programs are essential to the lives of children in every community. While our modernized Western culture has made dramatic advancements in economy, technology and communications, our society still hasn't figured out how to ensure that all children grow up in non-violent homes. Rather, each year hundreds of thousands of children in the U.S. are maltreated in some way.

Most prisoners suffered neglect or abuse during their childhood. As children, we have empathy for the plight of abused children. However, once these individuals become adults we tend to lose sympathy for them, focusing on ways to "punish" them. As seen by the repeated offenses of many criminals, punishment isn't our best option. Protection of children during their childhood is the key. This is why.

There are hundreds of studies in medical, social justice and mental health fields documenting the malfunctions in brain development that occur in abused children. When children grow up in abuse and neglect they do not have experiences that help their brains and "psyches" develop so that they can regulate their emotions, thinking and behavior.

The brain develops most rapidly the first four years of life. During the first three years of life the brain organizes in a "use-dependent" way, mirroring the pattern, quantity, and quality of the interactions the child experiences. Consistent, predictable, nurturing and enriching experiences in early life result in optimal brain organization and functioning. Eighty-five percent of core brain structures are organized by age three; they provide the foundation for more complex thinking and relating which develop during the rest of life. The brain is more vulnerable during early years but brain functioning can be impacted by trauma at any age.

The developing brain is easily altered by its environment. When a child experiences fear and pain the body and brain react with stress hormones and other physical misfiring, polluting the developing neural system. As the brain develops under these circumstances an abnormal organization is set up and the functioning of important neural systems is forever altered.

When these neural systems aren't working right the "functional capacities" of the brain are compromised. In daily life these brain problems can skew one's ability to see things realistically. One's body can be easily triggered into depression, anxiety, rage or fear reactions. If severe, the sadistic acts one experienced are reenacted with others. And, if the frontal lobe doesn't fully develop, an individual will have poor common sense, problem-solving skills, and they will be prone to "acting without thinking."

Despite the best intentions of those of us in the mental health, legal, social service and medical fields, and despite spending incalculable sums of money to regulate social welfare systems, we as a society have yet to figure out how to best help abused children. Even when we remove children from their families they are thrust into an under-funded social service system.

While some foster children are placed in loving and stable foster homes, others will move from foster home to foster home, where some will be further abused. These children are often in need of specialized educational and psychological care in order to heal; frequently they don't receive these services.

New research has looked at alternative forms of therapy to help restructure traumatized brains. Some of the most effective are movement and music therapies, and massage. Yet, the very best intervention is prevention of child abuse in the first place.

Prevention of child abuse can occur by providing social support for at-risk pregnant women; in-home nursing and parenting services to at-risk families; early identification and removal of child abuse victims; improving training, funding and supervision of foster parents; and intense mentoring programs.

We must all get more involved in prevention of child abuse. We must demand, vote for, and support funding and increased standards for day care, foster care, education and child protective services.

We must support programs that focus on strengthening families and providing optimal childhood experiences, such as the Boys and Girl's Club. We must encourage public education about child development and care giving (at present more training is required to drive a car than to raise a child). Financially, these changes in social policy will cost a lot less than we currently pay.

Most importantly, just imagine a world with less child abuse and neglect. And, imagine how good you will feel if you help develop it.

Lisa Keating, Ph.D., is a Carson City clinical psychologist.


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