Effects of Trauma on Children’s Brains

BW portrait of sad crying little boy covers his face with hands

The following article is from Sound Medicine News, February 3, 2015, and demonstrates the profound benefits an effective trauma relief therapy like TFT can have on the life of a child who has been traumatized:

Childhood Trauma Leads to Brains Wired for Fear

Last week, a report by the University of San Diego School of Law found that about 686,000 children were victims of abuse and neglect in 2013. Traumatic childhood events can lead to mental health and behavioral problems later in life, explains psychiatrist and traumatic stress expert Bessel van der Kolk, author of the recently published book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma.

Children’s brains are literally shaped by traumatic experiences, which can lead to problems with anger, addiction, and even criminal activity in adulthood, says van der Kolk. Sound Medicine’s Barbara Lewis spoke with him about his book.

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BRAIN REGIONS credit: aboutmodafinil.com/cc

Sound Medicine: Can psychologically traumatic events change the physical structure of the brain?

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk: Yes, they can change the connections and activations in the brain. They shape the brain.

The human brain is a social organ that is shaped by experience, and that is shaped in order to respond to the experience that you’re having. So particularly earlier in life, if you’re in a constant state of terror; your brain is shaped to be on alert for danger, and to try to make those terrible feelings go away.

The brain gets very confused. And that leads to problems with excessive anger, excessive shutting down, and doing things like taking drugs to make yourself feel better. These things are almost always the result of having a brain that is set to feel in danger and fear.

As you grow up an get a more stable brain, these early traumatic events can still cause changes that make you hyper-alert to danger, and hypo-alert to the pleasures of everyday life.

SM: So are you saying that a child’s brain is much more malleable than an adult brain?

BK: A child’s brain is virtually nonexistent. It’s being shaped by experience. So yes, it’s extremely malleable.

SM: What is the mechanism by which traumatic events change the brain?

BK: The brain is formed by feedback from the environment. It’s a profoundly relational part of our body.

In a healthy developmental environment, your brain gets to feel a sense of pleasure, engagement, and exploration. Your brain opens up to learn, to see things, to accumulate information, to form friendships.

But if you’re in an orphanage for example, and you’re not touched or seen, whole parts of your brain barely develop; and so you become an adult who is out of it, who cannot connect with other people, who cannot feel a sense of self, a sense of pleasure. If you run into nothing but danger and fear, your brain gets stuck on just protecting itself from danger and fear.

SM: Does trauma have a very different effect on children compared to adults?

BK: Yes, because of developmental issues. If you’re an adult and life’s been good to you, and then something bad happens, that sort of injures a little piece of the whole structure. But toxic stress in childhood from abandonment or chronic violence has pervasive effects on the capacity to pay attention, to learn, to see where other people are coming from, and it really creates havoc with the whole social environment.

And it leads to criminality, and drug addiction, and chronic illness, and people going to prison, and repetition of the trauma on the next generation.

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