A child’s mind is an amazing thing. Constantly building new connections, they absorb the world around them at an astonishing rate. Because a child’s brain is different from an adult’s, trauma can have a very different effect. It’s important to understand that PTSD and childhood trauma (also known as developmental trauma) are very different things.

For this reason, signs of childhood trauma can be difficult to recognize. Untreated, childhood trauma can have effects long into adulthood.

Developmental Trauma Hijacks the Brain

One of the most important things to understand about childhood trauma (especially chronic, repetitive trauma) is that it changes the way that the brain develops. During early childhood, an individual’s brain is building new neural pathways, and forming functional systems through repetition. A child who feels safe quickly builds the basic systems needed for survival and then uses that scaffolding to move on to higher brain functioning: language acquisition, emotional regulation, and bonding with others around them.

On the other hand, a child who is constantly in a threatening environment is always in survival mode, adapting the brain’s functions to respond to stress and danger. Their most frequent neural processes are all about responding to stimuli in order to minimize harm.

Common Problems Resulting from Developmental Trauma

  • Attention: Childhood trauma can cause problems focusing and engaging. Often, children will be unable to filter out irrelevant things happening around them, since their body is used to being constantly on guard.
  • Emotional regulation: Upheaval during childhood trauma hijacks a child’s emotions, making it almost impossible to self-soothe. This can prime an individual’s emotional response to be hyper-reactive. It can also be a reason that people with childhood trauma seek out emotional regulation by any means necessary, leading to substance abuse, self-harm, and risk-seeking behaviors.
  • Relationship development: Childhood trauma often disrupts the bonds between parent and child, whether or not the parent was involved in the traumatic event. It can cause children to orient themselves into one (or both) of two harmful patterns; either constantly being on guard and defensive, or conversely, being supplicating and compliant.
  • Impulse control: Impulse regulation is a function of the prefrontal cortex, which is one of the last parts of the brain to fully develop. When this development is inhibited, it interrupts an individual’s ability to adapt to social situations, exert logical control on impulses, and enact long-term plans and goals.
  • Self-blame: This issue is common in trauma victims, but even more so for people with developmental trauma. Early childhood cognition is extremely self-centric by nature, and so it’s difficult for children to understand cause and effect correctly. They may believe that they caused the problems they experienced, or that they should have done something to prevent them.

The Importance of Recognition and Treatment

By age 5, the brain is 90% developed. During early childhood, we grow in enormous leaps and bounds. That’s why the earlier that childhood trauma is recognized, diagnosed, and treated, the easier it is to repair damage and enable healthy development.

That being said, science is learning more and more everyday about the plasticity of the brain, or its ability to constantly change, develop, and adapt, no matter your age. Here at Grace House Children’s Project, we believe that healing and recovery is always possible, and we make it our mission to bring experience and understanding to each case in order to give individuals the tools they need not just to survive, but to thrive!