Abuse during childhood increases risk of suicide in adolescence, study finds

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Traumatic experiences can have lasting impacts on kids’ brains and development

A new study conducted by researchers from the University of Barcelona explored how experiences during childhood may impact adolescents’ mental health. According to their findings, children have a higher risk of committing suicide by the time they reach adolescence when they experience mistreatment or abuse.

“Adolescence is a period of high emotional vulnerability and 70% mental disorders are estimated to come up during this time,” said researcher Lourdes Fañanás. “The brain of an adolescent undergoes a process of maturation and this process might involve difficulties in self-control and a higher impulsivity and emotional instability, which are decisive elements for developing some risky behaviors. 

“It’s also a period full of changes (family dynamics, new groups with classmates, new challenges and activities, etc.) that can involve an increase of stressful situations for young people.”  

Childhood can have a lasting impact on mental health

The researchers analyzed personality traits, life stressors, experiences with child abuse, and suicidal behaviors in nearly 200 kids between the ages of seven and 17 who took part in the study.

Ultimately, the team identified a link between childhood experiences and long-term mental health. Children who were mistreated from a young age were at a higher risk of developing suicidal behaviors during their teenage years. The team believes this relationship may exist as a result of a lack of emotional regulation.

“When there is a relational trauma during childhood – for instance, psychological, physical or sexual abuse, or negligence – three primary developmental capacities can be altered: emotional regulation, identity, and interpersonal relatedness,” explained researcher Laia Marques-Feixa. “If one reaches adolescence without having consolidated good bases in these skills, this person can have more difficulties due to the lack of solid psychological resources to deal with challenges, conflicts, and daily difficulties that come up over the course of our life.” 

Addressing emotions and suicide prevention

The researchers hope these findings emphasize the importance of suicide prevention resources and how focusing on addressing emotional regulation can be beneficial for children and teens in abusive, stressful homes. While strategies are required to ensure that children grow up in safe homes, it’s also important to support children as they grow and evolve during these difficult times. 

“Our research shows that, in order to reduce suicidal behaviors in adolescents, we need to work on the regulation strategies of emotions, as well as to reduce the potential exposure to new stressful events (changing homes, fights, suspension from school, etc.), especially regarding those people with records of child abuse,” Laia Marques-Feixa said. 

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