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How Childhood Trauma Affects The Brain & Development

How Childhood Trauma Affects The Brain & Development
How Childhood Trauma Affects The Brain & Development

In this week’s Success Newsletter, I would like to reveal how childhood trauma affects the brain and development of a child.

First a quick update:

“Children Absorb Your Emotions”
“He’s just a child; he won’t understand.” Not true at all. Children are just like sponges and they absorb everything around them – including your emotions. Read my insights here

“Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Lesson”
One of the greatest heavyweight boxing champions of all time and man who fought outside the ring for religious freedom, racial justice and principles over expedience, Ali will also be renowned for one phrase. Watch the video!

Now, let’s talk about how childhood trauma affects the brain and development of a child.

Trauma is defined as a deeply distressing or disturbing experience; emotional shock following a stressful event or a physical injury, which may be associated with physical shock and sometimes leads to long-term neurosis.

“The human brain is designed to sense, process, store, perceive, and act on information from the external and the internal environment. All of these complex systems and activities work together for one overarching purpose – survival”
Goldstein, D.S. (1995). Stress, Catecholamines and Cardiovascular Disease.

Accordingly, trauma is the result of any life threatening event or event that threatens physical harm such as:

  • Sexual abuse or violence (does not require threat of harm)
  • Physical abuse
  • Disasters – fires, hurricanes, or floods
  • Violent crimes – kidnapping or school shootings
  • Motor vehicle accidents

Witnessing or exposure to:

  • Community violence
  • Domestic violence
  • War
  • Terrorism

Read the fact sheet from The US Department of Veterans Affairs here

Trauma negatively impacts the brain, and traumatic experiences in childhood have relatively a greater negative impact on the developing child than experiences later in life.

How does trauma affect the brain and development?

Neurons are the building blocks of the brain which create networks that link to create systems, which in turn, regulate all functions. Each event impacts the future development of the neurons and pathways, and there are critical developmental times when neural pathways are being formed that are significantly altered by traumatic events.

The stimulation associated with fear and trauma changes the brain: traumatic experiences causes specific pathways in response to the trauma to become the most used while reducing the formation of other pathways needed for adaptive behavior. In other words, the brain forms in response to the trauma and threats to survival rather than in response to a safe and welcoming world.

Almost 80% of the adult brain size is formed in the first 3 years, and 90% in the first years. Thus, trauma in these formative years can truly impair a child for life.

Over 20 million children in the US have PTSD and children exposed to traumatic events will often develop mild to serious and chronic neuropsychiatric problems.

Studies reveal that traumas during school-age results in externalizing behaviors (i.e. acting out) and early childhood traumas results in internalizing behaviors (i.e. withdrawal, depression, self-blame) (Manly, 2001; Kaplow, 2007).

“Children reflect the world in which they are raised. If that world is characterized by threat, chaos, unpredictability, fear and trauma, the brain will reflect that by altering the development of the neural systems involved in the stress and fear response.” – Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D.

Below is a summary of the impact of trauma on the development of the brain and development of the child.

Trauma’s Impact on Brain Development 

Exposure to chronic, prolonged traumatic experiences alters children’s brains:

Attachment & relationships
Trouble controlling and expressing emotions; trouble with relationships, boundaries (lack of or not understanding other’s boundaries), lack of empathy, and social isolation; violent reactions to situations; problems with authority figures, such as teachers or police officers.

Physical Health
The immune system and body’s stress response systems may not have developed normally, resulting in anxiety and high-stress response to situations not requiring these responses; risky behaviors (substance abuse, promiscuity, eating disorders), impaired sensorimotor development, hypersensitivity of senses or lack of sensitivity – anesthesia and analgesia, coordination problems, increased medical problems (chronic physical conditions and problems in adulthood), and somatic symptoms such as headaches or stomachaches.

Emotional Regulation & Response
Difficulty identifying, expressing, and managing emotions; difficulty identifying or labeling feelings and communicating needs. Internalize and/or externalize stress reactions and as a result may experience significant depression, anxiety, or anger; emotional responses may be unpredictable or explosive with the child in hyper-vigilance or extreme opposite of tuning out – ‘emotional numbing’; easily upset and unable to control the upset; overwhelmed easily.

Altered states of consciousness, amnesia, impaired memory. People may conclude that the child is “spacing out,” daydreaming, or not paying attention when in fact, the child is dissociating – not being fully present – with adverse effects on learning, classroom behavior, and social interactions.

Cognitive Ability
Having experienced trauma resulting in constant fear for survival, the child will have difficulty thinking clearly, reasoning, or problem solving; deficits in language development and abstract reasoning skills. Problems with focus, learning, processing new information, language development, planning, and orientation to time and space.

Self-Concept & future orientation
A child’s sense of self-worth and value comes from the reactions of others; witnessing or experiencing trauma results in faulty interpretations of self-worth and lovability. The child will blame him or herself with issues of shame, guilt, humiliation and body image issues and low self-esteem. This impacts future orientation because without a strong sense of self-worth and purpose, the child has little hope and makes no plans for the future.

Behavioral Control
Difficulty controlling impulses (easily triggered with intense reactions), struggle with calming down self; unpredictable, oppositional, volatile, aggressive and extreme behavior. A child who experienced abusive trauma may fear and react aggressively to authority figures or do the extreme opposite – allowing him or herself to be controlled and unusually compliant with adults. As mentioned in “Physical health”, the child will engage in risky behaviors including assault, violence, prostitution, substance abuse and so forth. His/her sleep will often be disrupted and he/she will engage in unhealthy or extreme eating patterns and, trauma re-enactment.

Long Term health
The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study is a longitudinal study that explores the long-lasting impact of childhood trauma into adulthood demonstrated the connection between childhood trauma exposure, high-risk behaviors (e.g., smoking, unprotected sex), chronic illness such as heart disease and cancer, and early death.

Additional reading:

It is critical to note that because the brain is plastic, the earliest intervention possible holds hope of preventing long-term damage to the child.

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If you need assistance to overcome an issue, strengthen your relationship, build self-esteem or free yourself from a past event, book a one-on-one session with me.

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I wish you the best and remind you “Believe in yourself -You deserve the best!”

Patrick Wanis Ph.D.
Celebrity Life Coach, Human Behavior & Relationship Expert & SRTT Therapist

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