With our relentless commitment to make sure kids are safe, we acknowledge Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Month each April. Safety is critical to child development and relationships. Our childhood experiences affect the way we see the world as youth and into adulthood. We asked Emily Frazier, LISW-S, clinical director in our children’s residential center, to share more about trauma’s impact on our emotional and relational health and how we can help prevent abuse in own families and communities.
How do childhood experiences, including trauma, affect our adult selves?
Because of the way our brains work, we develop our sense of self and the world around us based on our experiences. We tend to gravitate toward things that reinforce messages, events, and experiences that we have been through in our lives. This solidifies messages (positive or negative) that we believe about ourselves.
Childhood trauma impacts how we interact with the world around us. It creates negative cognitions that shape how we see ourselves and others. It can create mistrust in relationships and prevent us from experiencing stability. Childhood trauma is not just sexual, physical, or emotional abuse or neglect. It can also be "little t" traumas such as bullying, not being supported or validated by parents, birth trauma, etc. Basically, any negative or adverse event can be considered childhood trauma. We have all experienced trauma in some way, shape, or form. This clouds the way we interact with others and often creates pathways in the brain that keep us stuck in negative patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
How does childhood trauma affect brain development?
Several parts of the brain are important in understanding how the brain and body function during trauma. They include the forebrain, or the prefrontal cortex, the limbic system, which is located in the center of the brain, and the brain stem.
When a person experiences a traumatic event, adrenaline rushes through the body and the memory is imprinted into the amygdala, which is part of the limbic system. The amygdala holds the emotional significance of the event, including the intensity and impulse of emotion. The amygdala stores the visual images of trauma as sensory fragments, which means the trauma memory is not stored like a story, rather by how our five senses were experiencing the trauma at the time it was occurring. The memories are stored through fragments of visual images, smells, sounds, tastes, or touch.
Consequently, after trauma, the brain can easily be triggered by sensory input, reading normal circumstances as dangerous. The sensory fragments are misinterpreted and the brain loses its ability to discriminate between what is threatening and what is normal.
The front part of our brain, known as the prefrontal cortex, is the rational part where consciousness lives, processing and reasoning occurs, and we make meaning of language. When a trauma occurs, people enter into a fight, flight, or freeze state, which can result in the prefrontal cortex shutting down. The brain becomes somewhat disorganized and overwhelmed because of the trauma, while the body goes into a survival mode and shuts down the higher reasoning and language structures of the brain. The result of the metabolic shutdown is a profound imprinted stress response.
This is why people sometimes have unexplainable reactions to seemingly nonthreatening stimuli; the brain perceives it as dangerous and the body reacts accordingly. This is why treatment is so important; it helps the brain process the trauma and helps the body learn new ways to respond to stimuli.
How does childhood trauma affect social/relational development?
Trauma disrupts connection to self and with others. This is one of the underlying problems when it comes to trauma. We are wired for connection. Even before birth, we are searching for connection/attachment. This is why we hold/comfort a crying baby; it aids in connection and attachment. It develops trust. When trauma occurs, it disrupts our ability to connect, attach and trust. Trust is a fundamental building block of all relationships (friendships, intimate partnerships, co-workers, etc.). When we struggle to trust, we struggle to be in healthy relationships with others. Additionally, there is a strong correlation between childhood trauma and substance abuse as well.
Knowing the full impact of childhood trauma, what can we do to help prevent abuse in our own communities?
One of the best things we can do to help raise awareness of trauma is to become aware of our own. We have all experienced negative events, things that make us question safety, security or identity. Often these things do not occur on a conscious level, yet still shape who we are, how we think and how we react or respond to the world around us.
Responses such as "I got through it" or "it happened to me and I didn't fall apart" continue the cycle of keeping quiet. Don't downplay or dismiss people when they share details of their struggles. The single greatest thing you can do is to validate the feelings of others. This creates a sense of being known and accepted. Responses such as "That is hard" or "I'm sorry you're going through that" or "I don't know what to say, I'm just so glad you told me."
These responses will not solve the problem or change what has happened, but they do validate the difficulty someone is experiencing. These responses always need to be paired with safety; ensuring that the person who disclosed difficult things to you is safe is paramount. If they are not safe, find a trusted professional who can help find the proper channels to ensure safety. Sometimes, this can include reporting to the authorities.
If you are facing challenges due to trauma, we would love to support you with resources and education. Encompass Christian Counseling, a ministry of CCHO, has compassionate counselors and case managers to help you process your experiences and achieve your goals.