How Trauma Impacts the Brain

At some point, every family goes through a crisis.

It may be a death, financial struggles, a global pandemic, a natural disaster, an illness, or something else.

We all do the best we can to protect our children and provide them with positive experiences. Especially during difficult times, children need our support — loving, consistent adults who help them feel safe and valued.

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

Families heal from traumatic experiences when children, families, and other caregivers work through the trauma together.

For some families, the hardship and trauma is hard to escape and has deep impacts. This may include abuse or neglect, poverty, domestic violence, or parental mental illness, and substance abuse.

Other families experience hardship that is temporary or with impacts that may be less severe, such as a natural disaster or a divorce.

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 their emotional and physical safety. Adverse Childhood Experiences — or ACEs -— are traumatic experiences in childhood:

  • 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.

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 and have lifelong consequences.

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/

Click here to learn more about ACEs and toxic stress from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard.

When trauma is identified early and the child gets support, the negative impacts can be greatly reduced.

Children are resilient! Potentially damaging stress can be turned into minor hardship if children are supported, loved, and consistently valued throughout the experience by adults.

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

It’s important to understand that children of different ages respond to trauma differently. Though children of any age who have been impacted by trauma may show these behaviors:

  • Seek or demand more attention
  • Aggression
  • Withdrawl
  • Easily startled
  • Problems sleeping
  • Separation anxiety or fear of certain adults
  • Crying for reasons adults can’t figure out
  • Regressive behaviors (like wetting the bed after being potty trained)
  • Increased irritability or 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.

It can be hard to identify trauma in babies and young children.

So it’s critical to watch their behavior for changes.

Learn more about potential symptoms of trauma at each age from Sesame Street in Communities.

LEARN MORE

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

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

Loving, secure relationships

Environments that support children’s learning

Timely interventions

Research shows that the youngest brains and bodies are strong and even more resilient than we thought. Children who have the love and support of one or more caring adults are better able to 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 heal the impacts of trauma for young children:

  • Adults who are aware of children’s needs and support them with love and patience
  • Family, friends, and neighbors who help children feel seen, heard and safe
  • Families have ways to understand, express, share, and manage their feelings in healthy ways
  • Families have food, shelter, clothing, and adequate health care
  • Children learn age-based coping strategies that help them become more resilent

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.

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 support from our community. Knowing where to go for support can help strengthen your family, reduce the stress you feel, and make parenting a little bit easier.

There are many high-quality, confidential (and free!) parenting support programs in Jefferson County. Learn more on our parenting support page.

FIND PARENTING SUPPORT

If you are concerned about your mental health or the impacts of trauma, talk to a health care provider.

If you are hurting, there are resources in our community 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 get mental health services. Contact your insurance company, employee assistance program or primary care provider.