By Megan Shake, LSW – April 19, 2022
Childhood trauma is defined as adverse childhood experiences that are emotionally painful or distressful. Trauma can be caused by a multitude of things, including but not limited to, physical abuse or neglect, emotional abuse or neglect, sexual abuse, death of a loved one, separation from a family member, poverty, serious medical conditions, accidents, disasters, domestic violence, a parent with a mental illness, substance abuse within a family, and incarceration of a family member. Ultimately, there are an unlimited number of things that can be classified as traumatic.
What the definition of trauma does not tell you is that trauma actually changes the brain. It overwhelms your thoughts, emotions, and body. When you experience something that overwhelms you, it can rewire your brain and body.
According to a report from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, not only does trauma cause neurological changes, but it can also cause immune system and hormone level changes. Additionally, the National Child Traumatic Stress Network reports that children between the ages of 3 to 6 who are exposed to trauma may have difficulty learning in school, be unable to trust others or make friends, show poor skill development, lack self-confidence, and may be more likely to experience stomach aches or headaches.
When looking at parts of the brain, studies have shown trauma effects the amygdala, which is the part of the brain that controls emotions. Trauma can cause the amygdala to be hyperactive. That means even when danger is not present, the amygdala still might activate a “fight or flight” response in a person. The result may be a panic attack, a flood of emotion, feelings of aggression, or constant stress.
Another part of the brain affected is the prefrontal cortex. This is the part of the brain responsible for regulating emotions. Trauma can weaken the prefrontal cortex, causing difficulty concentrating or zoning out. Lastly, trauma affects the hippocampus as well. The hippocampus helps store memories. For some people, the hippocampus can have difficulty preserving other memories while retaining the traumatic event as clear as day. For others, the hippocampus blocks out part of the traumatic memory, or all of it.
So what can we do to help children who have experienced trauma? One of the most helpful things is for the child to have a caring, supportive, stable caregiver who can help regulate these changes and help the child better cope with adversity as they grow up. Just one caring and supportive adult can greatly benefit and positively impact a child throughout their life.
It is also important to seek help from a trained professional when needed, whether that be through outpatient therapy or even your school’s Youth First Social Worker. Remember, despite what these kids have been through, one caring adult to provide support can make a world of difference.