Childhood Trauma Leaves Lasting Mental Scars on Women and Men Differently

Summary: Child abuse and neglect affect men and women differently, a new study reports. Women are more affected by childhood emotional trauma and sexual abuse, whereas men are more affected by childhood physical and emotional neglect.

Source: European Psychiatric Association

A new study shows that men and women are affected differently by childhood trauma: women are more affected by childhood emotional trauma and sexual abuse, whereas men are more affected by childhood emotional and physical neglect.

Lead researcher, Dr Thanavadee Prachason (from the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands) said, “Our findings indicate that exposure to childhood maltreatment increases the risk of having psychiatric symptoms in both men and women.

“However, exposure to emotionally or sexually abusive experiences during childhood increases the risk of a variety of psychiatric symptoms particularly in women. In contrast, a history of emotional or physical neglect in childhood increases the risk of having psychiatric symptoms more in men.”

This work, presented at the European Congress of Psychiatry in Paris, is the first systematic research to link the gender-specific effects of childhood and neglect with mental health outcomes.

An international team from the Netherlands, Turkey, Italy, Belgium, the UK, and the USA analysed data from 791 volunteers on trauma in their childhood. They were also tested for current psychiatric symptoms such as phobias, anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, interpersonal sensitivity, and other symptoms.

The researchers were then able to associate the type of childhood trauma with the symptoms shown as adults.

They found that both men and women with a high score for childhood trauma were significantly more likely to show psychiatric symptoms as adults. The analysis showed that  both men and women were affected by childhood emotional abuse, but that this association was around twice as strong in women as in men.

“Women who had been sexually abused in childhood had more subsequent symptoms than those who hadn’t, but this pattern wasn’t found in men.

In contrast, childhood neglect, both physical and emotional, were linked to later psychiatric symptoms in men, but not in women. Dr Prachason  said, “Physical neglect may include experiences of not having enough to eat, wearing dirty clothes, not getting taken care of, and not getting taken to the doctor when the person was growing up. 

“Emotional neglect may include childhood experiences like not feeling loved or important, and not feeling close to the family”.

This shows the outline of two heads
They found that both men and women with a high score for childhood trauma were significantly more likely to show psychiatric symptoms as adults. Image is in the public domain

Senior researcher, Professor Sinan Guloksuz (University of Maastricht) added, “Childhood trauma is a widespread problem. It is difficult to gather accurate statistics, but a systematic review estimated that up to 50% of children worldwide had suffered from trauma in the previous year. 

“A number of studies have shown that childhood trauma contributes to a variety of mental health problems, and it is estimated that, worldwide, around one-third of all psychiatric disorders are related to childhood trauma: childhood trauma is a leading preventable risk factor for mental illness”.

Commenting, Professor Philip Gorwood, Université de Paris, Institut Psychiatrie et Neurosciences de Paris) said:

“This is an important finding, as childhood trauma has been clearly recognized as a major risk factor for the vast majority of psychiatric disorders, but with poor knowledge of gender specificities. Understanding which aspects of trauma are more damaging according to gender will facilitate research on the resilience process. Many intervention strategies will indeed benefit from a more personalized approach”.

Professor Gorwood is ex-President of the European Psychiatric Association. This is an independent contact, Professor Gorwood was not involved in this work.

Funding: This research is supported by the YOUTH-GEMs: Gene Environment interactions in Mental health trajectories of Youth project funded by the European Union’s Horizon Europe program under the grant agreement number: 101057182. 

About this mental health research news

Author: Press Office
Source: European Psychiatric Association
Contact: Press Office – European Psychiatric Association
Image: The image is in the public domain

Original Research: The findings will be presented at the 31st European Congress of Psychiatry

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  1. Emotional and/or psychological trauma from unhindered toxic abuse typically results in a helpless child’s brain improperly developing. If allowed to continue for a prolonged period, it can act as a starting point into a life in which the brain uncontrollably releases potentially damaging levels of inflammation-promoting stress hormones and chemicals, even in non-stressful daily routines.

    It’s like a form of non-physical-impact brain damage. … The lasting emotional and/or psychological pain from such trauma is very formidable yet invisibly confined to inside one’s head. It is solitarily suffered, unlike an openly visible physical disability or condition, which tends to elicit sympathy/empathy from others. It can make every day a mental ordeal, unless the turmoil is treated with some form of medicating, either prescribed or illicit.

    I know this, since I live it daily, mostly thanks to adverse childhood experience trauma. Even the large majority of my dreams are what I’ve more than once heard referred to as ‘anxiety dreams’.

    It’s written in the book Childhood Disrupted: “[Even] well-meaning and loving parents can unintentionally do harm to a child if they are not well informed about human development” (pg.24).

    Being free nations, society cannot prevent anyone from bearing children. Society can, however, educate all young people for the most important job ever, through child-development science curriculum. If nothing else, such education could offer students an idea/clue as to whether they’re emotionally suited for the immense responsibility and strains of parenthood.

  2. Since so much of our lifelong health comes from our childhood experiences, childhood mental health-care should generate as much societal concern and government funding as does physical health, even though psychological illness/dysfunction typically is not immediately visually observable.

    Sadly, due to the common OIIIMOBY mindset (Only If It’s In My Own Back Yard), the prevailing collective attitude, however implicit or subconscious, basically follows: ‘Why should I care — my kids are alright?’ or ‘What is in it for me, the taxpayer, if I support programs for other people’s troubled children?’

    The wellbeing of all children — and not just what other parents’ children might/will cost us as future criminals or costly cases of government care, etcetera — should be of great importance to us all, regardless of whether we’re doing a great job with our own developing children.

    Too many people will procreate regardless of their (in)ability to raise their children in a psychologically functional/healthy manner. Many people seem to perceive thus treat human procreative ‘rights’ as though they [people] will somehow, in blind anticipation, be innately inclined to sufficiently understand and appropriately nurture our children’s naturally developing minds and needs.

    In the book Childhood Disrupted the author writes that even “well-meaning and loving parents can unintentionally do harm to a child if they are not well informed about human development” (pg.24). I strongly believe that every parent should be knowledgeable about factual child-development science.

    Also noteworthy is that, regarding early-life trauma, people tend to know (perhaps commonsensically) that they should not loudly quarrel when, for instance, a baby is within clear-hearing range; whether they know about the intricacies of why they shouldn’t, however, is another matter.

    Since it cannot fight or flight, a baby stuck in a crib on its back hearing parental discord in the next room can only “move into a third neurological state, known as a ‘freeze’ state … This freeze state is a trauma state” (pg.123).

    This causes its brain to improperly develop. It’s like a form of non-physical-impact brain damage. Also, it’s the unpredictability of a stressor, and not the intensity, that does the most harm.

    When the stressor “is completely predictable, even if it is more traumatic — such as giving a [laboratory] rat a regularly scheduled foot shock accompanied by a sharp, loud sound — the stress does not create these exact same [negative] brain changes” (pg.42).

    As a moral rule, a psychologically and emotionally sound (as well as a physically healthy) future should be every child’s foremost right, especially considering the very troubled world into which they never asked to enter.

    But no such rights exist. Instead, every day of the year needs to be Child Abuse Prevention Month.

    I feel this way largely because I live with ACE-related chronic anxiety and a clinical depression that is only partly treatable [via potent antidepressants].

  3. is there anyone who doesn’t know that childhood trauma leads to adult problems? The question is, what, as an adult, do you do about it?

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