by Andrea M. Darcy
The effects of childhood trauma are very real and can persist long into adulthood if proper support is not sought.
Don’t believe it? Science now shows that childhood trauma actually affects your brain.
How the brain develops
Although the bulk of it develops while in the womb, your brain continues to grow and build itself. Neural connections form throughout your life.
Scientists can’t say exactly what percentage of your brain is developed by what age. But it’s sure that childhood is a crucial period of growth. It’s estimated that in the first few years of life, your brain forms from 700 to 1,000 neural connections every second. And these connections form the foundation for further brain development.
What sorts of childhood trauma effects the brain?
Any kind of abuse – physical abuse, sexual abuse, and emotional abuse – is very traumatic for a child and will affect brain development.
Other experiences that are very traumatic for children include:
What if you grew up in a ‘good family home’ but have all the signs of trauma? You might not have received what in psychology is referred to as ‘proper attachment‘. It’s very traumatic for a child to not feel loved, supported, and safe.
Lack of Proper Attachment and Brain Development
Attachment theory states that for a child to grow up into an adult who can confidently form healthy relationships with others, they need a strong and reliable bond with a caregiver for the first few years of their life.
This means that when, as a child, you cried, or gestured, or otherwise tried to express your needs, an adult responded in an appropriate way.
Perhaps they picked you up and held you, or spoke to you, or otherwise let you know that your needs would be met and you were safe.
This kind of supportive back-and-forth between a child and an adult is called ‘serve and return interaction’ and is not just important for your psychological development as an infant – it is crucial for the healthy development of your brain. Each time a positive interaction takes place between a child and adult neural connections are built.
If these healthy interactions did not take place — if the person taking care of you was unreliable, unable to love and care for you, or not well — it means these neural pathways may not form as strongly, meaning your mental and emotional health may be impaired as adult.
So if my parents were awful now and then, it affected my brain?
No parent is perfect, and some research shows that a child needs a variation in the response he or she receives from adults in order to realise they are a separate human and to move towards learning how to problem solve and be independent. Some stress is part of healthy development.
It’s only when the stress response is triggered too often, or rarely has a chance to shut off, that the physiological reactions of the body can become a threat to brain development.
In summary, children don’t need a ‘perfect childhood’. Children do, however, need to feel loved and accepted no matter their behaviour, and they do need support to deal with stress. They also require routines, play, healthy social connection, and good role models.
Just how does childhood trauma effect the brain?
As stated above, childhood trauma affects the way your neural pathways form or do not form.
Trauma can thus cause lasting changes in the areas of the brain that deal with stress, namely the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex. Studies on animals also found that trauma actually damaged neurons.
And not receiving the care and affection you required as a child also would see you experiencing the physiological effects of stress.
One of the side effects of the body’s primordial stress response is a flooding of hormones throughout the body, such as increased levels of cortisol and norepinephrine. These hormones can sometimes be another source of harm to the child’s brain architecture.
What are the symptoms that childhood trauma has affected your brain?
Symptoms as an adult that could mean childhood trauma has affected your brain development can include:
Suffering trauma as a child can also mean that as an adult your body physically responds to stress more than it should. Research looking at the effects of traumatic stress on the brain found that those with PTSD had higher than usual hormonal levels in response to stress, or dysregulation‘, including increased levels of cortisol.
Psychological issues related to childhood trauma
The psychological issues that have been related to the effects of trauma on the brain include:
Are all my problems down to childhood trauma?
No, DNA is also a factor. You are born with certain brain circuits. But the way these circuits develop does depend on the serve and return interactions you experienced.
You are basically born with the potential to develop behaviours and skills. But whether or not and how these skills develop for you is dependent on how you are nurtured and what your childhood experiences are. So it’s part your experiences, part your genetic inheritance.
This might be why two children can experience the same trauma but one will manage to be resilient while the other suffers symptoms throughout their life.
What can I do if I think my brain has been effected?
If, reading the above, you recognise the issues and symptoms and the types of experiences that register in the brain as trauma, it’s important to seek professional support.
Psychotherapy and counselling can help you manage the effects of childhood trauma on your adult life, meaning you have better relationships, your moods improve, and you feel more in control of your life.
And it seems that therapy can even rewire your brain. A 2017 study done by London’s King College, for example, used brain imaging to show that cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) increased brain connectivity long-term.
Need help managing childhood trauma? Harley Therapy connects you with highly experienced, friendly therapists in three London locations as well as worldwide via online therapy.