Trauma’s Impact on the Developing Brain
Updated: Feb 25, 2021
It makes sense that trauma affects a child's behavior but what does that have to do with the 5, 8, or 14 year old you are fostering, adopting, teaching or coaching?
If we take a closer look at the scans of a brain that is "normal" vs one that has experienced extreme neglect, it paints a clear description of how prolonged neglect and abuse creates lasting damage to the brain. This is not to say every child will be affected in this way, but there is higher likelihood the longer the abuse occurs and the less secure the attachment.
The effect of trauma literally rewires the brain and nervous system. The brain can be smaller, areas such as the temporal lobes which are in charge of emotions and receiving input from senses can be shut off, and their nervous systems can be stuck on high alert even when they may no longer be in danger.
Are you familiar with the amygdala and its role in the human body? The amygdala is the emotion center of the brain and is responsible for telling the fight, flight, freeze system to activate when danger is detected. The amygdala also activates the hippocampus (the memory center) to take note and create memories when it finds something interesting, which is how we learn! (2) . Did you know the amygdala is mature a month before birth but the parts of the brain that regulate the amygdala take years to mature? This is why self-regulation is so difficult and takes modeling and developmental lessons. (2) This is also why children with trauma in their early years have such difficulty regulating their emotions.
Trauma can present as sensory difficulties such as hypersensitivity to sound, touch or light or hypo-sensitivity to these stimuli. Trauma is also a sensory experience itself and affects the development of the sensory system. (I talk more about this in the Sensory and Trauma post) . A history of maltreatment is associated with lower grades, poorer standardized test scores, higher likelihood of meeting criteria for ADHD, anxiety and ODD and these children are more likely to be referred for special education services. (1)
I’ve said it before and I will say it again, behavior is communication. There is always a reason a child is acting out or withdrawing and it is our job to help them figure out why. Understanding the effects of trauma on the brain can better help us support and provide accommodations so they feel safe to explore their needs.
I recommend reading The Body Keeps The Score or The Boy Raised as a Dog to dive deeper into the effects trauma has on the body. As well as watching Nadine Burke Harris’s TED Talk titled: How Childhood Trauma Affects Health Across A Lifetime.
How Stress Changes a Child's Brain Image retrieved from http://www.reachingclarity.com/behavioral-health/abuse-emotional-neglect-and-toxic-stress-can-have-a-devastating-effect-on-children-brain/
(1) Cook, A., Blaustein, M., Spinazzola, J., & Kolk, B.V. (2005). Complex trauma in children and adolescents. Psychiatric Annals, 35 (5), 390-398.
(2) Barthel, K. (2017). Trauma informed care and sensory modulation. ATTACh conference. Retrieved from https://www.attach.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/5C-Trauma-Informed-Care-and-Sensory-Modulation.compressed.pdf