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How Trauma Impacts Child Development
August 12, 2021

Although our focus is “prevention” and stopping trafficking before it starts, it’s important to highlight that many of our scholarship students have already experienced trauma. The main factors we use to identify children most at risk for being trafficked or exploited include poverty, a family history of trafficking, a family history of substance abuse, a personal history of physical or sexual abuse, and statelessness. Each of these factors is strongly associated with the potential to introduce trauma at a very young age.

Also, those are only the “big T” traumas. Other things, like loneliness, neglect, and being bullied, can lead to “small T” traumas that some argue can, over time, add up to have the same impact as “big T” traumas. Chronic neglect can have developmental consequences that are even more severe than actual physical abuse.

Exposure to trauma, especially for young developing brains, fundamentally physically alters the brain, which shapes how the brain continues to develop, and ultimately shapes how future abilities and behaviors manifest outwardly. What we see in a teenager who has at a younger age experienced trauma, for example, may have roots in something that was entirely not their fault and could be something beyond their ability to control.

Let’s take a look at how this process unfolds.

Trauma’s impact on the brain

Trauma is about more than a specific event or the memories of a stressful event. On young developing brains, trauma has a physical impact on hormones, brain functions, and even the brain’s physical size. 

“When we are exposed to situations our brains perceive as life threatening, our bodies prepare for a “fight or flight” response. Our bodies release cortisol, the stress hormone, so we can rally the energy it needs to escape or encounter the threat….But when a threat occurs over a long period of time, or our brains and bodies continue to prepare to fight or flight even after the threat is over, then you have the makings for PTSD.

This heightened state of arousal manifests as hyper-vigilance, anxiety, and agitation. Memories, or external triggers, can stimulate the response, and merely thinking about the aversive experience causes Cortisol to release. When this occurs in children, it is far more devastating, because a chronic stress response alters a child’s development.” (Source: Focus for Health)

Cortisol levels aren’t the only thing to be impacted. There are a variety of other physical effects. For example, “children with maltreatment-related PTSD had smaller intracranial, cerebral and prefrontal cortex, prefrontal cortical white matter, and right temporal lobe volumes and areas of the corpus callosum and its subregions and larger frontal lobe CSF volumes.” (Source: De Bellis & Zisk, “The Biological Effects of Childhood Trauma, Child Adolesc Psychiatr Clin N Am, 2014) The list of impacts goes on. Oxytocin and serotonin levels and several other complex neuropsychological responses are all affected. This damage impacts a variety of cognitive and emotional abilities.

How this translates into observable traits and behaviors that impact the ability to succeed

The key takeaway is that abuse and other kinds of trauma physically impact the brain, impairing the ability to learn, control emotions and behavioral impulses, and function well at school or work. Thus, children who’ve experienced abuse are more prone to difficulties at school, home, or in society, which may lead to dropping out of school or getting into worse trouble.

As political scientist Robert Putnam notes in his book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, “Neuroscientists and developmental psychologists have identified an especially important set of brain-based skills that they call ‘executive functions,’…that are manifest in concentration, impulse control, mental flexibility, and working memory….Deficiencies in executive functions show up in such conditions as learning disabilities and ADHD.”

He goes further to state: “Under normal circumstances, with supportive caregivers, executive functions develop especially rapidly between the ages of three and five. However, children who experience severe or chronic stress during that period…are more likely to have impaired executive function. This, in turn, leaves them less able to solve problems, cope with adversity, and organize their lives.”

And: “Consequently, children who experience toxic stress have trouble concentrating, controlling impulsive behavior, and following directions.” Then, when they exhibit these traits and behaviors, they’ll be confronted with all kinds of messaging about how they’re “bad” kids or failing, which leads to shame and further negative feedback loops.

We see these impacts in so many ways. Early adverse experiences can lead to poor physical health (weakened immune systems and higher risks of heart disease and cancer), depression, substance abuse, disruptive behavior, and poor school and job performance. From a different angle, we can also see that incarcerated people, teen mothers, substance abusers, high school dropouts, and sex workers are all significantly more likely to have had histories involving childhood abuse.

Although we might intuitively understand that trauma negatively impacts children, society is often quick to judge older youth or adults struggling to meet societal expectations instead of inquiring about what might have led to that. This kind of psychological research suggests that the roots of maladaptive or risky behavior can run very deep.

What this implies for prevention

What we might observe among children at risk includes things like poor decision-making, difficulty assessing risk, and difficulty in exercising impulse control–and that’s all on top of the adolescent brain already naturally being more open to risk-taking and impulsive behaviors.

These youth may be more likely to engage in risky relationships with strangers online or have difficulty navigating the tough decisions that keep them in school when adversity strikes. If their parents are absent or have themselves suffered severe traumas, they might be even more alone. These parents may not be able to help their children effectively if they’re still struggling to regulate themselves.

High-quality therapy would be an ideal solution to helping children heal from trauma. However, most children in impoverished circumstances do not have access to that kind of treatment. But the one key thing that psychologists emphasize over and over again is the importance of at least one stable, loving caregiver to helping children overcome trauma. Experiencing at least one stable relationship of trust, love, respect, and guidance with an adult can have a remarkable impact on healing and resilience. 

This is why mentorship is one of our key pillars in our prevention programs. A stable, nurturing relationship is central to helping children, whether they’ve experienced trauma or not, navigate challenging situations, think through the impacts of their choices, and find the emotional and material support they need to stay in school. Through care and support, we hope to help them overcome the things that put them at risk in the first place.


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