So, you’ve likely heard of “trauma,” but what exactly is it? According to the American Psychological Association, it’s an emotional response. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network defines a traumatic event as a, “frightening, dangerous, or violent event that poses a threat to a child’s life or bodily integrity.” When we first thing of the word “trauma,” we probably think of serious, catastrophic events like combat or sexual assault. But Guy Macpherson, a psychologist who focuses on the study of trauma and hosts the podcast “Trauma Therapist Live!”, says that many situations can inflict trauma on children. Think about when a child is neglected or witnesses domestic violence. Or when they’re exposed to a car accident, natural disaster or school shooting. Unfortunately, the list goes on.
And when situations like these do arise, the stress-response system of the brain becomes more sensitive. To put it simply: a child who’s been traumatized by one of these things is likely to be stressed a lot more often. But what does that look like?
Well, picture a child who’s just lived through a hurricane. They might start crying when it’s raining outside. Their brain is just a lot more sensitive to that trigger. A child who’s been abused might be extra sensitive about their personal space, while a child who hasn’t been abused might not get upset when someone gets too close. We call reactions like this amplified responses, and they happen when the “fight or flight” response in the brain is activated.
Research by Dr. Bruce Perry, a psychiatrist and Senior Fellow of the Child Trauma Academy in Houston, Texas, found that when a brain is frequently under high amounts of stress, it starts to become prepared for stress continuously. Think about it this way: If it’s been raining outside every day for the past six months, you’ve probably gotten in the habit of bringing your umbrella and raincoat to work. It’s become second nature to you. Finally, if it stops to rain one day, you might still be a little cautious and bring your raincoat and umbrella – just in case. That’s exactly what the traumatized brain is doing. It’s used to protecting the body from stress. So, when a child who’s grown up under copious amounts of stress finally gets a break, their brain will still function in a protective way.
So, what’s the brain actually doing when it’s stressed? Well, heart rate increases and glucose (a sugar) is released, giving the body more energy. As a result, the child’s body is in a state of alarm—even if there’s no real threat. They might become hyper and act out or become disruptive. For this very reason, many children who are experiencing trauma are misdiagnosed with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD).
Changes in the brain don’t stop there. Nicole Kabalkin, a licensed clinical social worker at Milestones Psychology, says that hormones flood the child’s brain and impair different areas of the limbic system, which controls learning and memory (in the hippocampus) and processes emotion (in the amygdala). And the prefrontal cortex is also affected by trauma -- the part of the brain that controls executive functioning skills like problem solving and planning ahead.
Kabalkin goes on to say that if you only have a certain amount of energy in your brain, and it’s all being directed toward survival skills, then those higher-level functioning parts just aren’t going to develop at a normal rate. For example, if you have a limited budget, you’ll probably put your money toward what you need to survive – food, water, a roof over your head. That’s the baseline. You’ll worry about directing your money toward other, less necessary things once those basics are covered. In the brain, energy works the same way. If it’s being told that energy should go toward survival, then that energy isn’t reaching the higher-level areas in the way it should, where learning, memory and emotion live. In the words of Kabalkin, “How can we expect kids to really pay attention in class when they’re just worried about basic survival?”
This, Kabalkin says, can lead to kids having difficulties learning how to memorize, problem solve and process emotion. Their brains just aren’t working that way.