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Psyche: Neglecting children has very serious consequences


Children show far-reaching impairments when neglected
Children should generally experience a lot of love and personal attention, but unfortunately this is not always the case. Neglecting children or experiencing abuse will have a lasting impact on their personal development. The stress hormone level of those affected is also significantly changed in the long term, which in turn can be accompanied by neurobiological impairments.

In a current study, scientists from the Medical Faculty of the University of Leipzig examined the stress hormone level in abused and neglected children and found that it is significantly lower than that of non-neglected children from a certain age onwards. A reaction with far-reaching neurobiological consequences. The results of the study were published in the specialist journal "Journal of Child Psychology and Psychatry".

Stress hormone levels have been studied in more than 500 children
Scientists at the University of Leipzig examined the effects of neglect and abuse on children's stress hormone levels in more than 500 children. According to the university, around half of the children had experienced violence, sexual abuse or neglect during childhood - "be it physical, emotional or cognitive." To compare the stress hormone level in abused and non-abused children, the researchers analyzed the children's cortisol level aged 3 to 16 years. Cortisol is one of many stress hormones that provides the body with energy quickly and directly in certain situations, the scientists explain. The hormone concentration in the hair of abused children and non-abused children from the so-called "LIFE Child Depression Cohort" of the Leipzig Research Center for Civilization Diseases was checked.

Hair analysis for stress hormone is a relatively new method
The cortisol is stored in the hair over long periods of time, which makes it easy to measure. "This is a very special aspect of our study, because the hair analysis for stress hormones has not been around for a long time and it has never been used in such a large sample of stressed and unencumbered children," emphasizes study leader Dr. Lars White from the clinic and polyclinic for psychiatry, psychotherapy and psychosomatic medicine in childhood and adolescence at the University Hospital Leipzig. With the help of the method, the cortisol level can be observed over several months and shows the long-term adaptation of the body to stressful situations, explains the expert.

Stress hormone levels fall below normal values
According to the researchers, stressful situations also include neglect. A large number of children in the sample are affected. However, the aspect remains underrepresented in public perception. "We speak of neglecting neglect," says the study director. Neglecting the children could have serious consequences. "In our study, the greatest effects in stress hormone levels occurred for this group," said Dr. White. The study provides evidence that chronic stress - from which the abused children suffer - causes the stress hormone level to drop at a certain point, the body practically adapts to the situation with an exhaustion reaction, and the stress hormone level then falls below the normal level.

Biological stress regulation systems are increasingly overwhelmed
According to the expert, the observed effect may also serve to protect other body systems from excessive cortisol release. The changes in cortisol levels in children with experience of neglect and abuse in infancy can be observed particularly clearly, the Leipzig researchers report. "We know that neglected and abused children are permanently exposed to high levels of stress in their lives, but their biological stress regulation systems are increasingly less able to regulate these stress experiences in such a way that they contribute to a healthy development process," said Dr. White.

Remaining time window to avoid impairments
According to the Leipzig physicians, the changed cortisol level can have serious consequences and further neurobiological changes “which can manifest themselves in increased aggressiveness, hyperactivity or even anxiety”. The lower stress hormone levels found, however, only occurred in children aged nine and a half years, which resulted in a time window in early childhood in which the effect could not yet be observed. According to this, "Interventions such as therapy and support offers must take place as early as possible, ideally before the age of nine, in order to improve the living conditions for the child," explains Dr. With timely intervention, the fatigue reaction and thus the drop in stress hormone levels can still be prevented. (fp)

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