Understanding the Impact of Childhood Trauma


20180224_144346.jpgEmotional and psychological trauma has a great sensory impact on children. It is the result of overly stressful events that can shatter a child’s sense of security, making them feel helpless and vulnerable. Any situation that leaves a person feeling overwhelmed and alone can be traumatic, even if it does not involve physical harm. It is not the objective facts that determine whether an event is traumatic, but a person’s subjective emotional experience of the event. The more frightened and helpless one feels, the more likely they are to be traumatized. (Robinson). Research shows that children who experience traumatic events tend to relive these frightening stimuli and show they are affected through:

  • Nightmares
  • New fears
  • Unpredictable emotions, or the inability to regulate them
  • Flashbacks
  • Strained relationships
  • Sleep difficulties
  • Lower immune function
  • Actions or play that reenact the event

untitleddsToddlers and infants have different reactions from an older child because older children are more equip to verbalize their reactions to threatening or dangerous events. A 2-year-old who witnesses a traumatic event may interpret it quite differently from the way a 5-year-old or an 11-year-old would. Many people assume that young age protects children from the impact of traumatic experiences. When young children experience or witness a traumatic event, adults may think children are too young to understand, so it would be better if it was not addressed. Young children are affected by traumatic events, even though they may not understand what happened, or be able to verbalize their troubles. (NTCSN). A young child has not developed their coping skills, as the parents are there to support all of their emotional needs. With the absence of coping skills, it leaves children lacking an accurate understanding of the relationship between cause and effect, thus believing their thoughts, wishes, and fears have the power to become real. Young children are less able to anticipate danger or to know how to keep themselves safe, and so are particularly vulnerable to the effects of trauma. There are many factors that go into causes of traumatic events including:

  • Age: generally, the younger the child, the more vulnerable he or she is to the effects. Children are three times more likely to develop symptoms of stress due to trauma. (NCTSN).
  • Infants and toddlers are most negatively affected not when they are injured themselves, but rather when they witness their primary caregiver being threatened or harmed. (bethesdahouse.da)
  • Proximity: In general, the more details the child observes, the more traumatized that child can become. (NCTSN).

Fear and trauma have a profound impact on the brain especially the developing brain as it is very vulnerable. The basic architecture of the brain provides the foundation for all future learning, behavior, and health. “Although many of the functional capabilities of the mature brain develop throughout life, the vast majority of critical structural and functional organization takes place in childhood. By the age of three the brain has reached 90% of adult size, while the body is still only about 18% of adult size.” (Perry). According to The Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University’s research, genes provide the basic outline or foundation of the brain; however, experiences influence how or whether genes are expressed, it is not genetically hardwired. (Guerra). Together, genes and experiences shape and affect the quality and development of brain architecture. (1). “The process of building the architecture of the brain is dramatically influenced by life experiences. It is not genetically hardwired. Literally our environment shapes the architecture of our brain in the first year of life.” (Guerra). the-stress-fear-anger-vicious-cycle-preview
The effect of early life trauma on the circuits involved in fear has been shown to inappropriately alert the HPA axis, a system involved in the stress response. This has been shown to produce an ineffective stress response system. Repeated stress exposure is a predictor of non-habituation of the HPA axis. In this situation, the same stressor causes the same set of physiological functions as if it were a new, unique stressor. In a research study, individuals in an active episode of major depression displayed non-habituation. When an acute stressor is repeated, the majority of individuals show habituation of the HPA axis, meaning the brain recognizes the stressor as one that has successfully been adapted to and proceeds accordingly. (Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov). A repetitive and unwanted, past-centered, negative thought process, also known as rumination, is also related with non-habituation of the HPA axis stress response. (Schluer).



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