Childhood trauma has shaped and coloured my personality. It has affected my physical and psychological health and tainted my relationships. My experiences have woven themselves into the fabric of my being so that I live and breathe from it and through it as it forms an inextricable part of me. It still haunts my dreams, forming bleak nightmares filled with horror and terror. My unconscious mind has worked long and hard to process the things which I would not, and could not, process in my waking life. I blindly stumbled through life not understanding myself or why I was so sad and so dysfunctional.
But in the past few years I have gained insight. I have learned about myself and about childhood trauma. I have learned how my brain is different from someone who had a healthy childhood. My brain is different. So I am not inherently flawed or weak or terrible. My brain is just different and that affects how I think, feel and behave today.
This is an exciting area of neuroscience that has emerged recently. It is exciting because we can see the effects of trauma when we scan traumatised brains. We have improved our understanding of how and why people with childhood trauma behave the way they do. We have improved our understanding of how to fix the problem. And we can educate parents and caregivers about how to nurture and support children and young people so that future generations may be healthier and happier.
The Developing Brain
Our brains grow faster between birth and the age of three than at any other time in our lives. By age six, our brains are about 90% the size of their adult size. That’s incredible! This is why this period of childhood is often called “critical” or “sensitive”. The brain’s growth is driven by biological factors, but it is shaped by our experiences. Without adequate stimulation, our brains simply will not develop properly. We need sufficient food and water, but we also need to hear language, we need space to move and explore, and we need to have all of our senses stimulated. Without these, we may become developmentally delayed.
But we also need love and nurturing. We need appropriate touch. We need to be soothed and comforted. We have evolved to develop within social systems. In the absence of nurturing people to care for us as infants, our growth is likely to be stunted physically and psychologically. Brains won’t grow like they are meant to – some parts will be smaller and underdeveloped, like the picture below.
A very important point to make is that during this critical period, our brains are laying down our “neural scaffolding”. This scaffolding is the foundation on which all our later development relies on. We develop the deepest and most primitive parts of the brain first, and the higher more complex structures later on in adolescence and early adulthood. The more primitive parts of the brain are much harder to change than the more sophisticated parts that develop later. So it is so important to support children to develop properly in the first place.
What is Trauma?
There are different definitions of trauma. Generally speaking, it is an adverse experience in which a person feels helpless and threatened, and it has a profound, negative impact on them. Healthy adults have the capacity to make sense of traumatic experiences and know how to regulate their emotions. Infants and young children don’t have this capacity. They rely on their caregivers to help them regulate their emotions and to feel safe.
A childhood traumatic experience could encompass almost anything. I write more about my own experiences here, which included emotional abuse and neglect and physical abuse. When I look back, I recall countless times in my childhood when I felt bewildered, afraid, excluded, alone, sad and desperate. Apart from the brief period in which I lived with my doting grandparents, I cannot distinguish one adult who stood out as being consistently reliable, caring, protective or nurturing. The people who were meant to care for me, failed me. The people who were meant to love and protect me, terrified and abused me. That, is trauma.
What Trauma Does to the Developing Brain
When we are afraid, our brains activate our “fight, flight or freeze” response. You have probably heard of this. It is an ancient survival mechanism that prepares us to face predators. A lightening-fast chain reaction of events occur in our bodies, flooding us with the hormones adrenaline and cortisol. This reaction might be triggered by anything we find threatening – the sight of a snake, a near car collision, public speaking and so forth. Once the threat has passed, our bodies return to its normal state.
When children – even babies – feel threatened, they too experience this stress response. Without a caring adult to comfort them, it will take longer for their bodies to return to normal because they lack the capacity to self-soothe. As mentioned, the brain develops in response to the experiences it is exposed to. When a child is repeatedly exposed to threats, their stress response is repeatedly triggered causing a state of “toxic stress”. Their brains develop to adapt to this constant threat, so the parts of their brain that are involved in the stress response (such as the amygdala), become larger and more easily activated. Also, high levels of adrenaline and cortisol cause damage to their brains.
Children’s behaviour will usually reflect this kind of brain development. Their easily activated amygdala causes them to be hypervigilant, constantly seeking out threats even in benign environments like the classroom. They have poor attention, can be hyperactive, aggressive, impulsive, withdrawn, demanding, clingy, fearful or anxious. These children often become academically and cognitively delayed and may be labelled as defiant, oppositional or antisocial.
What Happens in Adulthood?
The long-term effects of growing up like this is quite devastating, especially if children remain in these hostile environments. When information from our environments is processed by our brains, the information goes up through our brainstem to the amygdala. If the amygdala triggers a stress response, the information is “hijacked” and doesn’t get to higher brain regions like the prefrontal cortex. This region is responsible for higher cognitive functions like reasoning, planning, impulse control, judgement, empathy and decision-making. Once the amygdala fires, we don’t activate these higher thought processes, so we act impulsively on emotion (fear). The more this happens, the stronger our stress response gets and the less developed our cortex becomes.
Adults who grow up with traumatised brains often have diagnoses such as depression, bipolar, ADHD, ODD, borderline and others. Substance abuse is common. We often have difficulty regulating our emotions and self-soothing. And we often have great challenges in our relationships. This is not surprising when we think about how our brains are wired to act on emotions and how our higher cognitive functions are compromised. We may perceive threats where there aren’t any – we assume people will hurt us, that the world is unsafe, that we are unworthy and un-loveable and that people will abuse or leave us.
There is good and bad news for us. The good news is that the brain is “plastic”, meaning that we can re-train the brain so that our stress response isn’t as easily triggered. We can teach ourselves how to self-soothe. The bad news is that it’s hard work and requires a lot of commitment. We need to unlearn a lifetime of behaviour and rewire our brains through many, many repetitions of healthier behaviours. Through repetition, we can weaken the neural pathways responsible for the stress response, and strengthen the neural pathways for self-soothing and higher cognitive functions.
How To Help A Child Experiencing Trauma
Of course, prevention is better than later intervention. This section really warrants a whole post of its own, but here’s a very quick guide:
- Reduce toxic stress if possible – give the child respite from the hostile environment and/or reduce the cause of the trauma if possible
- Be reliable and consistent with the child to increase their feelings of security and safety
- Practice self-soothing with the child – do deep breathing or visualisation exercises with the child
- Show them that you care – tell them they are wonderful and important and make time for them
- Provide them space and time to talk to you – talk to them about free counselling lines that they can phone (such as Kids Helpline in Australia 1800 55 1800)
- Maintain a safe and nurturing relationship with them!
- Provide them with fun and carefree experiences
- Don’t over-protect them or give them free reign – allow them appropriate independence and decision-making but maintain firm boundaries
I have given a very abbreviated version of how childhood trauma affects our brains. I intend to write more about this topic but if you’re interested, here’s some great sites to check out. Happy reading!
Main image by Elisa Riva on Pixabay