The Remarkable Effects of Trauma on Brain Development
“Kids are resilient.”
I’ve heard this phrase time and time again, and let’s just call it BS. Kids are not actually as resilient as you think they are. Most of us who’ve suffered any kind of trauma in our childhoods can tell you that we’re still stuck in many of the same thought patterns that wrecked our formative years. Women are described as having “daddy issues”. Men are described as “emotionally unavailable”. People with alcoholic parents often turn to alcohol themselves to soothe their pain. We didn’t magically erase our childhood issues; we just learned to cope. Or maybe we didn’t.
Much has been studied in the past few years on the topic of ACES – adverse childhood experiences. These can include physical, emotional, or sexual abuse; physical or emotional neglect; and also household dysfunction such as substance abuse, mental illness, incarcerated relatives, divorce, or violence towards the mother. More than 2/3 of Americans have suffered from at least one of these traumas before the age of 18 and they have profound lasting effects on brain development. In fact, the presence of ACES can lead to mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, or suicide; can lead to risky behaviors such as alcohol and drug abuse or unsafe sexual behaviors; or can lead to health issues such as cancer, obesity, diabetes or produce a higher risk for STDs. Only a lucky few people have had zero traumatic experiences in their childhood, and they live at a significant advantage over all of the rest of us.
But exposure to ACES in the first three years of life can be even more impactful. Take a look at the brain scans of a child in a normal loving home vs. that of a child who spent their first few months in a Romanian orphanage, often neglected by overworked caregivers:
As you can see, there is significant inactivity in the temporal lobes, which is the area of the brain that helps a person regulate emotions. Children who’ve suffered early-life trauma have different cognitive patterns and can easily become dysregulated, angry, or violent. It doesn’t matter if that traumatized child is placed into a loving home after the fact, their brain has not developed properly and serious intervention is needed for these children to thrive.
In addition to the underdeveloped temporal lobes, these children also live primarily in the limbic brain – that’s the part of the brain that tells you to run when a bear is chasing you. The limbic brain is responsible for the fight, flight, or freeze reaction to stress; and a child who’s lived with trauma starts to live in survival mode all the time. Fear and panic create conditions for the brain to override the cerebellum – the part of the brain responsible for higher-level functioning. That means that when the brain is in survival mode, guess what it can’t access? That’s right… logic and reasoning! So if you’ve ever tried to reason with a kid who’s experienced early-life trauma during one of their many rages, you know that it’s just not possible.
Some symptoms that the brain has been affected by childhood trauma include:
Learning difficulties and focus issues
Poor planning abilities
Self-regulation; or the ability to control yourself
Poor social skills
Difficulty forming healthy relationships
The good news is that the brain is an incredible organ and has the power to overcome ACES and trauma, but only with professional intervention. Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to stretch and function as a muscle: to adapt, learn, and recover from injury. Most of us have different thought patterns than we did 20 years ago and that is because of the brain’s ability to rewire the neural pathways. Some ways we can achieve this rewiring is through repetition, either via talk therapy, neurofeedback, EFT tapping, or other therapeutic treatments. Depending on the severity of the ACES, journaling, positive self-talk, and affirmations may help improve thought patterns in teenagers or adults.
The most important thing if you’re dealing with a kid who’s experienced early childhood trauma is to begin interventions as soon as the trauma is discovered. The sooner we can treat these children, the more successful the outcomes will be. Early childhood trauma doesn’t have to be a life sentence. Let’s get these kids the help they need to have a chance to succeed at life.