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Can Trauma Cause Children’s Brains to Change?

Trauma is a huge detriment to children’s mental health. Childhood trauma can stay with a child for most of their lives and be a huge hit to their future mental health. Societal trauma in children, like with school shootings or local violence, for example, can be detrimental to a community as a whole. 

The Biological Effects of Childhood Trauma

According to “The Biological Effects of Childhood Trauma” by De Bellis and Zisk, the study of developmental traumatology creates a framework for how childhood trauma shapes the world and the function of society. It also studies the intimate effects of childhood trauma on children as they grow. Currently, less is known about trauma’s effect on children compared to what is known about trauma and adults. 

Childhood trauma is normally defined as direct exposure to death, serious injury, sexual violence. Indirect exposure can include things such as hearing about, seeing, or being threatened with death, serious injury, and sexual violence. 

For many children, this can mean being in a car accident, exposure to war, exposure to abuse, neglect, sexual abuse, domestic or community abuse, etc. The results of exposure to these types of trauma can include:

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSS)
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Antisocial behaviors
  • Increased risk of substance or alcohol abuse. 

Changes to the Brain

According to De Bellis and Zisk, a series of permanent changes to the brain occur as a result of childhood trauma. The brain will respond with a flight-fight-freeze response and do what it can to get through the initial ordeal. 

Elevated CRF and CRH also occur as the trauma happens. Corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) is a regulator of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal system. Corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) is the actual hormone that is released and regulates the neuroendocrine, sympathetic, and behavioral reactions to stress. 

Having elevated CRF and CRH means that the child is constantly in flight-fight-freeze mode. Their adrenaline levels may be running high, and their decisions are solely around survival. The child’s CRF will stay elevated even after the trauma, responding to triggers and protecting the child from further harm. This will affect: 

  • The child’s decision-making skills. The child may continue to make decisions in fight-flight-freeze mode and grow up making poor, dangerous, or hasty decisions. 
  • The child’s learning ability. The child may be so focused on surviving or dealing with their mental health that they will struggle in school, creating a ripple effect into adulthood with fewer options after school due to grades or confidence. 
  • The child’s ability to process and retain information. Processing skills in the brain could be hindered, resulting in a lower ability to follow directions and a higher reactivity in social situations. The child could also become easily forgetful, resulting in stress when they realize too late what they have forgotten. 
  • The child’s vulnerability to stress disorders such as PTSD, PTSS, anxiety, depression, etc. The child will have them through childhood, and into adulthood as they grow and learn to adapt to the world with a mental illness. 
  • The child’s ability to connect with others. The child may have a hard time with friends or with trusting adults, depending on their trauma. 
  • The child’s ability to function in the family. The child may change their attitude significantly and isolate themselves from the family. 
  • The child’s risk for addiction or self-medicating behavior. When the child gets to their formative teen years, they may experiment and find themselves self-medicating to suppress unresolved trauma. This can lead to addiction issues and continuing the cycle of trauma. 

CRF and CRH are not the only parts of the brain to change. Children’s brains are always changing as they grow, and their neural pathways will continue to develop. The problem lies in unresolved trauma and a cycle of only knowing how to think in survival (fight-flight-freeze) mode. Children need to be treated for trauma to change their brains so that they can develop healthy thinking patterns. 

Helping a Child With Trauma

Traumatized children need to be safe, first and foremost. Safety is what they crave and will try to find for themselves, even if their decisions seem dangerous or unsafe. Traumatized children need love and support. Having someone who is there for them and can make a solid, positive connection with them is vital to ensure this love and support. Ideally, this is the same person who keeps this child safe (like a parent or guardian). 

Traumatized children also need therapy and time with a doctor to identify their medical needs and work towards healthy adulthood. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, talk therapy, EMDR, play therapy, and more are all strategies employed to help children overcome their trauma and the damage it caused their brain. 

Some adults never got over their childhood trauma, resulting in poor decisions, poor reactions, memory suppression, and more. Adults who were never validated or assisted with their trauma may be stuck in a cycle of bad decisions, leading to addiction or severe mental health issues. It’s hard to admit or even identify where the trauma starts sometimes, but we can help at RECO Intensive. At RECO Intensive, we know that childhood trauma is often unresolved and can lead to issues in adulthood. Every person is different, and your trauma is valid. You deserve help, treatment, and understanding of your trauma. Our professional staff and experienced alumni can help create a treatment plan that is specifically catered to your needs. We offer a myriad of therapies that can help you get back on your feet and make healthy decisions that would make the child in you proud. Call us today at (561) 464-6533. Let’s get back to a brighter future. 

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