To educate our readers and avoid being redundant, we're creating a series of "explainer" posts on the topics we refer to a lot. This is one of them.
Here's what we’ve learned through research and interviews about childhood trauma. When we learn something new, we'll update this post.
What is childhood trauma, anyway?
- Child abuse or neglect
- Foster care
- Natural disaster
Any event which a kid perceives as being awful, threatening, and disturbing can leave a lasting impression on their life, brain, and body. Those effects can last through adulthood. But kids who experience trauma aren't doomed, we promise. More on that later.
1. Academically, socially, behaviorally, physically, emotionally – you name it, trauma impacts it
Kids may express trauma by acting out, having nightmares, demanding extra attention, or acting as though they’re living in fear.
How it impacts the brain: Experiencing trauma is so harmful to kids that it can actually hinder their brain development. It creates lasting changes to brain structures like the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex. Enduring traumatic stress can even impact kids’ memory, making it more difficult to recall certain short-term memories.
How it impacts the body: Stress is biologically associated with higher levels of cortisol and norepinephrine, two hormones involved in the body's "fight or flight" response. The body's stress response is actually a good thing, as it helps us survive when threatened. But it's harmful for kids who are activating it all the time. This could happen, for example, when a child lives with an abusive parent.
2. Childhood trauma doesn't discriminate
Trauma can happen to anyone, but kids living in poverty and in high-crime neighborhoods are more susceptible.
3. There’s no cure for trauma, but there is a way to measure it and treat it
We can measure trauma through the ACES test (Adverse Childhood Experiences Study) It's a long-running, very large study with over 17,000 participants. You can find out your ACES score here. And if a person does have a high ACES score, what should be done about it?
Early intervention is the key to helping kids bounce back from trauma. Interventions could be something large scale like creating trauma-sensitive school environments. Or something individual, like going to therapy, and mindfulness-based practices. One of the most innovative organizations working to help children overcome trauma is located right here in Michigan: The Children's Trauma Assessment Center at Western Michigan University.
Many traumatized kids aren’t getting the help and support they need. Many professionals still don’t understand the role trauma can play in child development and trauma is still often incorrectly diagnosed as mental illness, behavior problems, or disabilities.
4. Trauma can forever change a kid's life, brain, and body
If left untreated, adults who survived childhood trauma are more likely to struggle with substance abuse and mental health issues. Childhood adversity can even turn kids into physically sick adults.
Trauma can also impact a kid's ability to have healthy adult relationships and experience intimacy, leading to a whole host of other problems like intimate partner violence and unplanned pregnancies.
5. If you've gone through trauma, you're not doomed
Despite the odds against them, many folks who survived a traumatic childhood grow up to be strong, successful adults. By overcoming trauma, kids develop a sense of resilience and character.
If you have more questions about trauma or an idea for an explainer post, let us know in the comments section or on Facebook.