Domestic Violence, Developing Brains, and the Lifespan: New Knowledge from Neuroscience

Vol. 53 No. 3

Lynn Hecht Schafran is an attorney and director of the National Judicial Education Program, a project of Legal Momentum in cooperation with the National Association of Women Judges. She can be reached at

The author suggests that, before reading this article, you go to and watch First Impressions: Exposure to Violence and a Child’s Developing Brain (15 minutes) featuring Dr. Bruce Perry, senior fellow of the ChildTrauma Academy in Houston, Texas,1 and Dr. Linda Chamberlain, founding director, Alaska Family Violence Prevention Project,2 available at

The New England Journal of Medicine recently published an article titled “Silent Victims—An Epidemic of Childhood Exposure to Domestic Violence.” It called on healthcare providers to understand the prevalence and neurobiological consequences of children’s exposure to domestic violence and take action to mitigate it.

Childhood IPV [Intimate Partner Violence] exposure has been repeatedly linked to higher rates of myriad physical health problems in children. Altered neuroendocrine stress response may be one important mechanism accounting for this correlation. Highly stressful environmental exposure, such as exposure to IPV, causes children to repeatedly mount the “fight or flight” reaction. Although this response may be adaptive in the short term, repeated activation . . . results in pathologic changes in multiple systems over time; some experts refer to this effect as the biologic embedding of stress.4

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