Childhood trauma can have a profound impact on a child’s development, behavior, ability to cope with normal stress, and future mental and physical health. Thanks to the groundbreaking CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, more and more people recognize the significance of childhood trauma as it relates to adult health and well-being. By fostering resilience skills, we can help children heal from physical, emotional, or sexual trauma, and abandonment, and increase their odds for a healthy adulthood.
Trauma, the brain, and behavior
Trauma can derail a child’s brain development in many ways that affect behavior. An overactivated amygdala, the fear center of the brain, leads to anxiety, difficulty calming down, impulsive responses, feeling unsafe, and sleeping problems. When the fear center is overactivated, a child may feel threatened or react impulsively to a situation where no threat exists. They may also feel overly anxious well after a threatening experience.
An under activated anterior cingulate cortex, the brain’s emotional regulation center, affects managing emotions.
An underdeveloped prefrontal cortex, the thinking center of the brain, causes children to have difficulties with thinking, learning, and impulse control.
Changes in the brain from trauma make the stress response system (fight, flight, or freeze reactions) activate longer and more often than normal. When this happens, behaviors can include sudden and prolonged aggression, explosive or emotional outbursts, and destruction, as well as withdrawal. These anti-social behaviors are the child’s way of showing that their feelings of fear, stress, or discomfort have reached a point where they are no longer able to cope. Negative coping behaviors, such as yelling, hitting, or throwing things, become self-destructive as the child grows, and lead to conflict and crisis in the home, in school, and in the community.
Healing and resilience
There is hope for children who have experienced trauma, and that is through fostering resilience. Resilience, or the ability to overcome serious hardship, is a key factor in a child’s capacity to heal from trauma and grow into a healthy adult. Resilience skills can help calm the brain’s fear center and activate its thinking center, redirecting the body to make a healthier response to stress triggers.
These skills can be taught to children from an early age to support their development, as well as to support healing for youth experiencing the behavioral and emotional symptoms of trauma. Resilience education is also a part of many outpatient counseling or inpatient therapy programs.
“At Red River Youth Academy, we use a variety of trauma-informed, evidence-based practices designed to increase resiliency and reduce maladaptive trauma responses,” said Scott Keeton, M.A., LPC-S, Clinical Director at the psychiatric residential facility. “We use practices such as trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TFCBT), eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), and traditional CBT. These therapies can help reduce aggression, defiance, fighting, impulsive behaviors, and self-harm, and improve parent-child communications.”
Fostering resilience in children is essential to limiting long-term damage and planting the seeds for future well-being. Elements such as self-regulation, problem-solving skills, and supportive relationships with caring adults, all boost a child’s resilience and give them the ability to overcome trauma, adversity, tragedy, and other significant sources of stress, instead of being broken by them.
In the coming weeks, we will share ideas you can use to help children build resilience and overcome life’s challenges for a healthy future.
The content of this article is for informational purposes only. The content is not intended to substitute for professional mental health advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your psychiatrist, psychologist, licensed mental health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a mental health condition.
Harvard University Center on the Developing Child https://developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/
American Psychological Association https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/resilience
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration https://www.samhsa.gov/homelessness-programs-resources/hpr-resources/childhood-resilience
National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. Excessive Stress Disrupts the Architecture of the Developing Brain: Working Paper 3. Updated Edition (2005/2014). http://developingchild.harvard.edu/wp-content/uploads/2005/05/Stress_Disrupts_Architecture_Developing_Brain-1.pdf
Journal of the American Medical Association. Neuroscience, molecular biology, and the childhood roots of health disparities: Building a new framework for health promotion and disease prevention. By Shonkoff, J. P., Boyce, W. T., & McEwen, B. S. (2009). https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/184019
Experimental Neurology. Corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) downregulates the function of its receptor (CRF1) and induces CRF1 expression in hippocampal and cortical regions of the immature rat brain. By Brunson, K. L., Grigoriadis, D. E., Lorang, M. T., & Baram, T. Z. (2002). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2930769/