How can trauma, caused by adverse childhood experiences, such as sexual, physical, emotional abuse, neglect or witnessing domestic violence, impact development?
Trauma is caused by a harmful and distressing event. It is the way a person psychologically and physically responds to that event, either immediately or a long time after it took place. Each person will experience and express trauma differently. Two people may respond differently to the same earthquake event, and that difference will depend on several factors, such as:
Childhood is the time in life in when we are most active in terms of our development: millions of connections in the brain are happening at the same time with each new skill that is learnt, creating a healthy and well-adjusted adult. Different factors can impact on social, cognitive and affective development. Exposure to trauma in early childhood has proven, unless treated, to be related to long-term effects that may interfere in adult life.
The brain and body are always learning. Like a sponge they absorb whatever is in their environment. In simple terms, if a child grows up surrounded by a healthy environment, violence-free and in stable and loving relationships with their caregivers – then that child will integrate that experience and their brain will be “wired” to interact and respond in that way. On the contrary, if a child grows up witnessing or experiencing domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, being neglected by their caregivers, etc, then the child’s brain will wire itself, as a protective measure, to interact and respond in that context.
When a person has a distressing experience and experiences the feelings that come with it, the part of the brain that “decides” how to respond is the frontal lobe. That part of the brain is not fully mature until the age of 21 years in women and around 25 years in men. Those 21 - 25 years are when a person learns healthy and appropriate, or unhealthy and inappropriate, ways of responding to the world.
When trauma happens, the brain shifts from the “learning mode” - which is constantly happening in the developmental years – to “survival mode”. If someone is constantly exposed to traumatic situations, the brain will “learn” to operate in survival mode.
When a person is exposed to distressing situations for a long period of time – especially if the traumatic incident(s) took place during childhood and was never resolved - it is highly likely, they could present at some point in life with:
In the same way that the brain was impacted by the negative experiences from the past, it can be impacted and changed in the present, by positive experiences that will open the door to a healthier life. A trauma informed service, facilitated by a trauma-trained professional, will help the person to explore and heal trauma experiences – especially, the adverse childhood experiences and long-term exposure to distressing situations – in a safe and nurturing way.
Trauma – the consequences of it – can be healed even after many years have passed. With the support of trained and qualified professionals, (sometimes a multidisciplinary team), a person who experienced a distressing situation and was traumatised by it, can restore a sense of safety and well-being, develop the ability to engage in healthy relationships, improve their self-esteem and sense of self and live a fulfilled and joyful life.
Article as published by Skylight Trust