What happens in children’s brains when parents scold

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Of: Sina Alonso Garcia


Children who experience emotional violence develop changes in the brain (icon image). © IMAGO / Ute Grabowsky / photothek.de

When parents shout at their children, they can trigger processes in the brain that can have serious consequences for the personality. Studies show how serious the effects are.

Belmont – Early childhood experiences often shape people throughout their lives. Anyone who experiences emotional violence at a young age instead of unconditional love will have a hard time being at peace with themselves and the world as an adult. What many parents are not aware of: Emotional violence begins when children are yelled at or scolded. As neuroscientists have discovered, our brains do not know the difference between physical and verbal violence.

In her book Words like arrows – about emotional violence against our children and how we prevent it, educator Anke Elisabeth Ballman writes about the processes that take place in children’s brains when they are shouted at. “Words can shake a child, hurt it deeply, change its development, have a lasting effect or even stop it. If a child is yelled at, shamed, or blackmailed, it is violence. Ballman substantiates your statements with studies conducted by neuroscientists at Harvard Medical School.

The yelling of children can cause serious trauma – studies from Harvard Medical School make you sit up and feel

Using so-called fMRI scans, Harvard researchers have been searching for the location of language in the human brain for about twenty years. Although it has not yet been possible to definitively determine this, the researchers were able to establish that the areas of responsibility in the scanner light up as soon as fear, tension, stress or expectation were involved. The result: Corresponding physical reactions in those affected. Based on their experiments, the researchers were able to prove that violence through language was perceived as threatening as physical attacks. In other words, anyone who shouts, blackmails or shames a child can trigger serious trauma.

Harvard Medical School study

In their study, researchers led by Martin Teicher of Harvard Medical School in Belmont (Massachusetts) examined 193 young adults between the ages of 18 and 25. Using studies, they determined which of the test subjects had experienced physical or mental violence in childhood and then performed brain scans.

As research has shown, there is a crucial difference between people who experienced psychological violence as children and those who were not exposed to emotional violence. Those who were exposed to verbal abuse and stress as children had smaller hippocampus than those who had not experienced violence. The reason that the hippocampus is too small is probably the hormonal stress processing, which is particularly susceptible to disorders in children under five years of age.

Small hippocampus: Those affected are more prone to mental illness

But what does it mean when people have a hippocampus that is too small? In fact, this part of the brain plays a huge role in the evaluation and regulation of emotions, as well as the ability to deal with emotions. Specifically, it means that it determines how people cope with stress, or whether they are susceptible to mental illness. In the study, those who experienced insults, humiliation, and threats in childhood were more likely to be depressed, suffering from anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, or borderline personality disorder.

Parents can probably sometimes not prevent themselves from being loud or shouting at a child because they themselves are stressed. If this is the case, however, they can remedy the mistake by taking a decisive step: Once they have sincerely apologized to the child, the confidence and certainty that the loving connection will be restored can be markedly strengthened.

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