The impact of trauma in childhood

Children depend on adults for the physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual nurture that will enable them to grow and develop. If these attachment needs are met children grow strong and resilient, able to meet the challenges of life and to build more resilience through the experience of success. But if needs are not met children are vulnerable to trauma. So what is childhood trauma? How does it affect children and young people? What is the impact of childhood trauma on the life chances of children and young people?

Children depend on adults for the physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual nurture that will enable them to grow and develop. If these attachment needs are met children grow strong and resilient, able to meet the challenges of life and to build more resilience through the experience of success. But if needs are not met children are vulnerable to trauma. So what is childhood trauma? How does it affect children and young people? What is the impact of childhood trauma on the life chances of children and young people?

Trauma means acquired brain injury as a result of unregulated stress. Children are not born able to regulate stress, they gain this ability through attunement with their parents. Self-regulation of stress in adults builds healthy brains in children. Healthy stress – the challenges of daily life – then builds further resilience. Toxic stress changes the way the brain functions. So some children and young people never develop stress regulation, and can be injured by everyday stresses. And any child may experience stress so great that it overwhelms their ability to self-regulate, which injures them.

Humans are very good at thinking, but the thinking brain works much more slowly than the feeling brain. Toxic stress turns off any functions that slow down reactions, saving our lives when we face a threat. These lost functions include: the ability to self-regulate, the ability to process information and make sense of the world, and the ability to interact positively with other people. Childhood trauma is additionally complicated because the brain is still developing, so the toxic stress affects brain development as well as brain function. Traumatised children and young people often struggle with every aspect of daily life.

Children and young people who struggle with self-regulation are likely to be perceived as presenting challenging behaviour. They may be hyperaroused and acting out, or dissociated and switched off, but in either case they will find it difficult to manage life at home, at school and in the wider community. Processing disorders add to the child’s difficulties, leading them to misinterpret neutral events as frightening, and to lack the ability to account for their own feelings and behaviour. And socially they struggle to make and maintain safe relationships, leaving them isolated or stigmatised.

Children can recover from trauma, and recovery actually builds added resilience. For those who do not recover, however, the prospects are gloomy. Unprocessed childhood trauma can have a lifelong impact on physical, intellectual, emotional and social health and well-being. Without recovery, traumatised children go on to be traumatised adults, populating the margins of society. The evidence for how to help children and young people recover from trauma is growing, and IRCT is committed to making that evidence available to everyone who wants to make a difference to the lives, and the future, of injured children.

Key points that are essential to know:

1. Relationships build brains
2. Toxic stress injures brains
3. Trauma affects how children can think, feel, and behave
4. Challenging behaviour can lead to traumatised children being stigmatised and excluded
5. Children can recover with adult support, but without recovery the effects of childhood trauma can be lifelong lifelong

Checklist for those working with children who are traumatised:

1. Recognise that behaviour is always a message about the internal world of the child
2. Remember the terror – the internal world of traumatised people is one of toxic stress which is identical to being terrified
3. Do keep up to date with research on childhood trauma – new research is constantly emerging
4. Share your understanding of trauma with colleagues – traumatised children need strong teams to support them
5. Be prepared to share knowledge with the widest possible professional network – trauma is a bio-psycho-social injury, so involves all professional disciplines
6. The wider community also needs to understand childhood trauma – spread information as widely as possible to increase recognition and insight