How trauma affects childhood development

Children who have suffered trauma may find it difficult to express or control their emotions, which can result in violent or inappropriate responses in certain situations. (Photos: Shutterstock)
When a child lives in a home that does not provide them with consistent safety, comfort, and protection, and they not have a close relationship with their parents or caregivers, they learn from a very young age that they cannot rely on anyone for help. So, they develop unhealthy coping mechanisms that they deem necessary for their survival and day-to-day functioning.اضافة اعلان

They may become overly sensitive to any changes in the moods of those around them, and learn to withhold their emotions, never wanting anyone to know that they are either afraid, sad, or angry. When you know that a certain child is experiencing physical and/or emotional threats, their coping mechanisms will make sense but will stand in their way of creating healthy and productive relationships that will limit their capacity to love and be loved.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, childhood trauma is defined as “the experience of an event by a child that is emotionally painful or distressful, which often results in lasting mental and physical effects.” There are many ways in which a child can experience trauma, from natural disasters, war, poverty, and homelessness to bullying, physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. Even though adults can also experience trauma and be heavily affected by it, their maturity is an advantage that helps them process trauma more. In children, however, trauma alters brain development and results in developmental and behavioral issues.

Limits of the research
Research that explores the link between trauma and cognitive development and, in turn, effective interventions remains conceptually underdeveloped. This is due to the difficulty of methodologically defining and monitoring the impact of trauma and the lack of suitable ways to accurately assess the outcomes of interventions taken to care for traumatized children. In addition, there is still a need for better integration of neuroimaging and neuropsychological studies into research on tracking cognitive development.

However, there are still some studies that have tried to assess the impact of trauma on children’s development. One study that gained attention was published in 2017 in the Neuroscience Journal titled “Toward understanding the impact of trauma on the early developing human brain”. One of its findings was that early trauma is associated with altered function in neural pathways of a developing brain. We have neural stress pathways and emotion processing pathways, and these are the pathways usually impacted during exposure to trauma. Since these neural pathways are all interconnected, when one of them is impacted by trauma, multiple other pathways are most likely to be affected and changed. When exposure to trauma takes place, it impedes cognitive function, selective attention, and reward processing pathways.

Another study, published in the International Journal of Psychology in 2020, looked at trauma exposure as well as post-traumatic stress (PTS) symptoms among young Syrian refugees who attended public schools in Jordan. The study found that boys reported more age-adjusted PTS symptoms than girls. The study specifically looked at how family support and gender moderated the association of trauma on PTS symptoms. Interestingly, benefits of family support for boys was most evident under conditions of high traumatic stress exposure. As for girls, benefits of family support were most evident where there were no reported losses or injuries to family members. This shows the importance of considering the different needs of boys and girls, especially in the Middle Eastern cultural context, when designing school or family-based interventions to treat PTS symptoms.

Effects of childhood trauma
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, child maltreatment is the leading preventable cause of major mental illnesses, such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Trauma, especially the exposure to chronic, prolonged traumatic experiences, is most likely to have an effect on all aspects of a child’s development from attachment, physical health, emotional regulation, behavioral control, cognitive ability, and dissociation.

When a child experienced PTSD, they are reliving that traumatic experience over and over again and they will do everything in their power to avoid anything or anyone that may remind them of their trauma. Many children believe that they missed warning signs that predicted their traumatic experience. They therefore become hypervigilant, looking for signs that something bad might happen again. There are several ways in which the effects of trauma manifest in the lives of children exposed to it.

Attachment and relationships
Children learn how to trust others, regulate their emotions, and develop a sense of safety and security through the relationship they have with their parent or caregiver. When that relationship is unstable or unpredictable, or when a child is exploited or abused by a loved one, it teaches them that the world is a scary, terrible place. As a result, the majority of abused or neglected children struggle to create or maintain stable relationships with others because they tend to expect the worst from them. They also have difficulty expressing and controlling their emotions, which can result in violent or inappropriate responses in certain situations.

Physical health
The stress that results from experiencing a traumatic event can impair the development of a child’s immune and central nervous systems and puts them at a higher risk of developing chronic diseases such as asthma, coronary heart disease, diabetes, strokes, autoimmune diseases, as well as cancer. Complexly traumatized youth may suffer from body dysregulation where they may over-or under-respond to stimuli. In addition to their psychical health, their mental health is heavily impacted as well and can result in them developing anger issues, anxiety disorder, depression, and other psychotic disorders.
... Childhood trauma is defined as “the experience of an event by a child that is emotionally painful or distressful, which often results in lasting mental and physical effects.”

Emotion regulation

When a child experiences complex trauma, they have a difficulty identifying, expressing, and managing their emotions, and their emotional responses may be explosive due to internalizing stress. It is not unlikely to see a traumatized child throwing tantrums or always guarded and defensive. They might even regress to thumb-sucking and bed-wetting. In school, they become easily frustrated and give up on tasks as soon as a challenge presents itself because their body is used to shutting down in times of stress. While some traumatized children are hyperaware and seem to be always prepared for any threat that may befall them, others may become emotionally numb to such threats which puts them at the risk of revictimization.

Cognitive ability
Traumatized children tend to have trouble thinking clearly, problem-solving, negotiating, and reasoning. They have a difficulty planning ahead and anticipating the future, because when a child grows up in conditions of constant threat, all of their efforts are directed towards survival and their bodies and minds are always in a state of preparation to deal with chronic stress. This makes it difficult for them to acquire new skills or absorb new information. It infringes on their ability to be creative and curious, and disrupts their attention. It is not abnormal for children who live with complex trauma to show signs of language and/or developmental delay and deficits in abstract reasoning skills, and require heavy one-on-one academic and emotional support.

Dissociation in children happens when they experience traumatic or overwhelming experiences, where they mentally separate themselves from the experience. Their brain rejects the experience as a defense mechanism and they experience themselves as detached from their body; they are simply watching what is happening to their body but not registering it as something happening to them. This may result in the loss of all memories or senses related to the experience. This is why many victims may find it difficult to have an accurate, detail-oriented recollection of their trauma. It is vital for parents, caregivers, and communities in general to understand the concept of dissociation when dealing with victims of trauma, especially those who have endured physical and/or sexual abuse.

Not believing a victim simply because they are incapable of describing what happened to them in specific detail has many adverse outcomes on top of their trauma. The damaging rhetoric that a man must always be tough and never complain or show any negative emotions, and a woman always being too sensitive and complaining about nothing of real consequence are unfortunately still common in Middle Eastern communities. If nothing is done to combat such stereotypes, children’s mental health services will not be able to adequately cater to the needs of traumatized children and youth.

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