Effect of Various Childhood Trauma on Children’s Behavior

by: Dan Florell, Ph.D.

The four year old boy heard the arguing and started scanning for a place to hide. Whenever his mother started arguing with her boyfriend, it wouldn’t be long before she came looking for him.

The bruises had finally started to fade from the last time his mother hit him. The boy crept under his bed and constantly scanned the room for his mother’s approach. He hoped that she used her medicine before she found him. The medicine always seemed to calm her down and it meant he could come out again.

There is an increasing societal focus on the effect of trauma on children like the boy in this scenario. Trauma in childhood comes in many different forms including neglect, abuse, parental incarceration, or parents with addiction. All of these various forms of trauma are referred to by professionals as adverse childhood experiences (ACES).

When children are experiencing trauma, their brains begin to change to a primitive fight, flight, or freeze response. While the brain is in this primitive response mode, it shuts down the areas of the brain where learning occurs, particularly learning that involves language. Adults can see the primitive brain response in young children when they become upset and lash out. It is not until typically developing children begin to mature that they are able to “use their words” when they become upset.

In a child who repeatedly experiences trauma, the primitive brain of fight, flight, or freeze can get stuck as the default response to a variety of situations. While this is an adaptive response under traumatic conditions, it makes it difficult for children when it comes time to learn new content and do well in school.

By the time the four year old boy in the scenario starts Kindergarten, there are a host of negative effects that can result due to his repeated trauma. The trauma has trained his brain to be very sensitive to perceived threats. When a perceived threat is seen, the boy is likely to lash out. Due to this hyper-vigilance, children who have experienced trauma are two times more likely to show aggression than children who have not experienced trauma.

Furthermore, the boy’s ability to learn will suffer. He will have particular difficulty in language related learning including reading and writing. Another side effect is having difficulty with his memory. This can make the boy look like he is zoning out or inattentive. Traumatized children, like the boy, are three times more likely to have attention difficulties than other children.

Due to all of the negative effects that result from a traumatized brain, adults who are caring for these children will need to be aware of how to structure their environment so the children can be successful. One way to minimize symptoms is to provide children with predictable routines. If changes to the routine are going to occur, children should be given advance notice. Other helpful techniques include asking children to verbally repeat instruction, have adult use more written instruction, and to use verbal prompts when giving multi-step directions.

When children experience trauma repeatedly, it can change their brain’s functioning to a fight, flight, or freeze mentality. Since adults don’t always know children’s backgrounds, providing a safe and predictable environment for all children is the best approach to take.

This article was published in the Richmond Register daily Friday on June 24, 2016

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