~ by Allyson Scanlon, Family & Youth Advocacy Specialist, Clarina Howard Nichols Center
Existing within all of us, no matter our age, are instinctual protective modes that kick in when our bodies and minds perceive us to be in some type of danger. These instinctive reactions can make daily functioning difficult for anyone, but can be especially damaging for children as crucial development is interrupted. Children also have less life experience to allow for self-regulation or the ability to recognize how significant a threat any given situation actually is to their safety and well-being. Thus, in homes where there is on-going intimate partner or sexual violence, children are actually being exposed to chronic trauma. Chronic trauma can cause children to develop many instinctual survival skills. Unfortunately, these skills meant to protect often interfere with healthy brain development, and can even have a lasting impact on how they will live their lives as adults.
Our brains develop 80-90% during ages 0-5. This time period is extremely critical – adverse experiences can literally stunt brain development in kids as chaotic environments cause our amygdala (also thought of as our “reptilian” brain) to overcompensate signaling our “fight/flight/freeze” response. In turn, children are constantly in a toxic state of stress, or sensing they are in danger. The hippocampus, another more primitive part of our brain, cannot function properly when the amygdala is signaling constant alarm. What all of this looks like in terms of behaviors in kids we may work with is an inability to focus, difficulties with speech and memory, behaviors often resulting in our labeling kids as “trouble” or a “problem child” such as outbursts, aggression, high anxiety/overactive startle response, and/or a child may be perceived to have attention deficits. These children may also revert to behaviors they have outgrown such as trouble sleeping, thumb-sucking, or bed-wetting. Pay attention! If you notice any of these signs in the children you interact with, chances are there may be something concerning happening.
Much research has been done connecting early childhood trauma with a wide range of problems later in adulthood. The ACE (Adverse Childhood Experience) Study has shown us that children exposed to four or more traumatic experiences (such as emotional/physical/sexual abuse, neglect, witnessing IPV, exposure to drug/alcohol use, etc.) compared to those who did not have any adverse experiences were 4 to 12 times more likely to develop health problems later in life. These problems are often associated with alcohol/drug abuse, depression, and suicide attempts. The study also links exposure to childhood trauma to a greater likelihood of smoking, lower self-esteem, risky sexual behavior, higher contraction rates of STDs, and obesity.
All of this knowledge makes one thing especially clear – those of us who have the privilege of working with young people are in an extremely advantageous position to make a profoundly positive impact on their lives and futures. Just as the brain is amazing in its ability to protect us, it is also adept at healing itself! There are concrete ways in which we can assist in that healing process. Research tells us that the top resiliency factor for a child is at least one strong connection to a positive, consistent adult caregiver in that child’s life; ideally, a non-offending parent. Of course, the larger the supportive network, the better! Kids who are experiencing or have experienced chronic trauma simply need consistent positive feedback, kind and loving words regarding their absolute worth, predictable and routine schedules so they can feel safe and know what to expect, the ability and encouragement to demonstrate or talk about their feelings/perceptions and safe places in which to do so. They also benefit from simple reminders that they are not to blame for what they have experienced. As with any person who has been through a difficult incident, children need their emotions and perceptions validated and heard. Those of us who work with these amazing kids are also at a great advantage to teach them better, less life-invasive coping strategies such as mindfulness exercises and self-regulation tricks so kids can know how to calm themselves through triggering episodes. The positive impact one caring, concerned adult can have on a young person’s future is something so simple to do, and yet is truly priceless.
Watch this great video about brain development, the impact of trauma and healing: First Impressions | Exposure to Violence and a Child’s Developing Brain:
To learn more about childhood trauma and the brain, check out the following resources:
This easy to read booklet on brain development, trauma and healing: The Amazing Brain: Trauma and the Potential for Healing.
Or read this revealing article.
Interested in mindfulness activities designed with kiddos in mind? Check out: 7 Fun Ways to Teach Your Children Mindfulness!
For information on a great framework helping young people develop the ability to self-regulate, watch this video about the ARC Treatment.
Take a look at the ACE Study!