How Trauma Impacts the Brain

Caring adults can buffer the impact of traumatic experiences and help children become resilient

At some point or another, every family goes through a crisis. It may be a death in the family, a divorce, financial hardship, a natural disaster, an illness or some other type of trauma.

When families experience hard times, parents have the power to help children navigate and overcome these challenges.

For every child, healthy development includes learning to cope with stressful circumstances.

For some families, the hardship they experience is hard to escape and has deep impacts. This includes abuse or neglect, chronic poverty, domestic violence, parental mental illness or substance abuse by a caregiver.

Other families experience hardship that is temporary or the impacts are less severe, such as a natural disaster or a divorce.

We all want what is best for our children. We work hard to protect them and provide them with positive experiences. Especially during difficult times, children need our support — loving, consistent adults who help them feel safe and valued.

Families heal from traumatic experiences when children and their parents and caregivers work through the trauma together.

A Child's Perspective of a Traumatic Experience

To understand a traumatic situation as children experience it, and the powerful role of a caring adult, check out this video.

Trauma results when a child — or an adult — experiences an intense event, a traumatic experience, that threatens or causes harm to his or her emotional and physical well-being.

You may have heard of Adverse Childhood Experiences — or ACEs. ACEs are traumatic experiences in childhood, such as:

  • Emotional, physical, or sexual abuse or neglect
  • Addiction by a parent or caregiver to drugs or alcohol
  • Mental illness in a parent, caregiver or family member
  • Witnessing violence against a loved one or in the community
  • Loss of a parent or caregiver due to death, incarceration or divorce
  • A natural disaster, such as a flood, fire, hurricane or earthquake
  • Chronic, severe poverty

These traumatic experiences may happen once, or repeatedly. When they happen over and over, they can become part of a child’s sense of normalcy, causing stress hormones to stay in the body at an unhealthy level.

If negative experiences, or ACEs, are repeated or experienced over a long time — without the presence of supportive adults — children may develop traumatic stress.

When children have a traumatic experience, they become upset — emotionally and physically.

They may begin to feel hot and start to sweat. Their heart rate may go up. They may feel agitated and hyper-alert with “butterflies” in their stomach.

These are the body’s normal reactions to stress and how our bodies protect us and prepare us for danger.

But if these stress responses are frequent or long-lasting, and a child does not have the support of caring adults, the impact of stress can damage the child’s developing brain. In some cases, the negative impacts from childhood stress response can carry lifelong consequences.

If you are concerned about the impact of challenging life circumstances on your child’s development, talk to your pediatrician right away.

If you are suffering from the impacts of trauma, there are community resources to support you.

  • If you feel overwhelmed or worried about your mental health, call Colorado Crisis Services at 1-844-493-8255.
  • Jefferson Center provides mental health counseling for insured, under-insured, and uninsured families. Call 303-425-0300 to get connected.
  • If you have health insurance, you can access mental health services. Contact your insurance company, employee assistance program or primary care provider.

Source: Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, https://developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/aces-and-toxic-stress-frequently-asked-questions/

Healthy development for every child includes learning how to cope with stressful circumstances.

There are three kinds of responses to stress: positive, tolerable, and toxic.

Positive stress Tolerable stress Toxic stress
Brief increases in heart rate and mild elevations in hormone levels.

Positive stress is a normal and essential part of healthy development.

Examples:

  • The first day at a new school
  • Receiving a vaccination
  • Meeting new people

Intervention:

A child can easily navigate positive stress with the support of loving adult caregivers.

Increased, heightened reaction of the body’s alert systems.

Examples:

  • The loss of a loved one
  • A natural disaster such as a flood, fire or tornado
  • A serious accident or injury

Intervention:

If tolerable stress is short-lived or if the child has consistent and caring support from an adult, the child can overcome and get back on track to healthy development.

The brain and other organs that are negatively impacted by too much stress are able to recover from what might otherwise be damaging effects.

Prolonged activation of the body’s stress response. Toxic stress harms the development of the brain and other organs.

Toxic stress increases a child’s risk for stress-related disease, cognitive disabilities and mental health issues as adults.

Examples:

  • Severe or repeated hardship, such as:
    • Physical, emotional or sexual abuse
    • Neglect
    • Substance abuse or mental illness of a caregiver
    • Exposure to violence
    • Chronic, severe poverty

Intervention:

Research shows that when adults respond quickly with support, a child can be protected from the damaging psychological and physical impacts of toxic stress.

 

Stress and Resilience

How toxic stress affects us, and what we can do about it

Source: Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University. https://developingchild.harvard.edu/

 

Learn more about ACEs and toxic stress.

If you are concerned about the impact of challenging life circumstances on your child’s development, talk to your pediatrician right away.

If you are suffering from the impacts of trauma, there are community resources to support you.

  • If you feel overwhelmed or worried about your mental health, call Colorado Crisis Services at 1-844-493-8255.
  • Jefferson Center provides mental health counseling for insured, under-insured, and uninsured families. Call 303-425-0300 to get connected.
  • If you have health insurance, you can access mental health services. Contact your insurance company, employee assistance program or primary care provider.

Source: Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, https://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/toxic-stress/

 

When trauma is identified early and the child receives intervention, and the consistent loving support of adults, the negative impacts of traumatic stress can be greatly reduced.

Children are resilient, and potentially damaging stress can be turned into minor hardship if children are supported through the experience by loving adults.

Each of us has the power to help stabilize and heal a child following a traumatic experience.

It’s important to understand that children of different ages respond to trauma differently. That said, children of any age who have been impacted by trauma may have the following behaviors:

  • Seek or demand more attention
  • Show aggression
  • Seem withdrawn
  • Startle easily
  • Have sleep problems
  • Have separation anxiety or show fear of certain adults
  • Cry for reasons adults can’t figure out
  • Exhibit regressive behaviors (such as wetting the bed after being potty trained)
  • Show increased irritability
  • Display sadness
  • Frequent health/medical problems
  • Inappropriate sexual behaviors

In addition to these general indicators, symptoms of trauma are different at different stages of a child’s development. Here are some signs to look for, according to age.

Birth to age 2

Infants and toddlers that have experienced trauma may:

  • Have trouble digesting
  • Show a low appetite and lose weight
  • Display weaker verbal skills and more memory problems than older children
  • Have exaggerated emotional responses, such as screaming or crying
  • Lack emotional responsiveness, or eye contact, with caregivers
  • Be overly quiet, shy or closed-off
  • Show significant delays in development
  • Have trouble sleeping

Ages 3–6

As children grow, there are often more noticeable cognitive, behavioral, and physiological reactions to traumatic experiences. Children this age may:

  • Have a hard time focusing in school
  • Show delays in cognitive development
  • Struggle with learning disabilities
  • Experience stomach aches or headaches
  • Act out angrily or aggressively in social situations
  • Mirror their own traumatic experiences verbally, physically or in their drawings or play
  • Show uncommon anxiety, fear or avoidant behavior
  • Struggle with intrusive thoughts that distract them or distance them from normal life
  • Develop feelings of self-blame
  • Show low self-confidence
  • Display mistrust toward others, impacting their ability to establish friendships

If you are concerned about the impact of challenging life circumstances on your child’s development, talk to your pediatrician right away.

If you are suffering from the impacts of trauma, there are community resources to support you.

  • If you feel overwhelmed or worried about your mental health, call Colorado Crisis Services at 1-844-493-8255.
  • Jefferson Center provides mental health counseling for insured, under-insured, and uninsured families. Call 303-425-0300 to get connected.
  • If you have health insurance, you can access mental health services. Contact your insurance company, employee assistance program or primary care provider.

Source: Sesame Street in Communities, https://sesamestreetincommunities.org/activities/responses-trauma-age-age-video/

All of us — even babies and young children — have the ability to be resilient, or to recover from difficulty and hardship.  

Everyone — including young children — has the ability to cope with adversity when they are given the tools and support they need.

Loving, secure relationships

Environments that support children’s learning

Timely interventions

Help children exposed to trauma and toxic stress heal from the negative effects and thrive.

Research shows that even the youngest brains and bodies are stronger and more capable of resiliency than we previously thought. Children who have the love and support of one or more caring adults are better able to build resiliency and navigate life’s ups and downs.

As adults, we have the power to prevent stress from becoming toxic for young children by identifying hard circumstances and stepping in to get our children the support they need.

These factors help lessen the impact of trauma for young children:

  • Parents and caring adults who are aware of children’s needs and support them with love and patience
  • Kids who have family, friends, and neighbors who help children feel seen and heard and safe
  • Both children and parents have ways to understand, express, share, and manage their feelings in healthy ways
  • Families have food, shelter, clothing, and adequate healthcare
  • Children are taught age-appropriate coping strategies and techniques to build resilience

You have the power to help kids feel safe and learn to cope with life’s challenges. This site is designed to provide you with materials and resources to help you do that.

If you are concerned about the impact of challenging life circumstances on your child’s development, talk to your pediatrician right away.

If you are suffering from the impacts of trauma, there are community resources to support you.

  • If you feel overwhelmed or worried about your mental health, call Colorado Crisis Services at 1-844-493-8255.
  • Jefferson Center provides mental health counseling for insured, under-insured, and uninsured families. Call 303-425-0300 to get connected.
  • If you have health insurance, you can access mental health services. Contact your insurance company, employee assistance program or primary care provider.

Sources: Sesame Street in Communities, https://sesamestreetincommunities.org/activities/responses-trauma-age-age-video/
Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, https://developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/inbrief-the-science-of-resilience/

As parents, we need to take care of ourselves in order to take care of our children.

We all face hard times in our lives when we need to lean on others for support. Knowing when and where to go to access important resources can strengthen your family, reduce the impact of stress on your children and make parenting a little bit easier.

There are many free and low-cost programs in Jefferson County to support families and young children. These include help with child care, financial assistance, food pantries, mental health services, medical care and more.

Enter your zip code below to find programs and organizations near you.

If you are concerned about the impact of challenging life circumstances on your child’s development, talk to your pediatrician right away.

If you are suffering from the impacts of trauma, there are community resources to support you.

  • If you feel overwhelmed or worried about your mental health, call Colorado Crisis Services at 1-844-493-8255.
  • Jefferson Center provides mental health counseling for insured, under-insured, and uninsured families. Call 303-425-0300 to get connected.
  • If you have health insurance, you can access mental health services. Contact your insurance company, employee assistance program or primary care provider.