How childhood trauma affects the developing brain and what you can do to help


Megan’s legs were numb. She was grateful they had escaped the hijacking physically unharmed, and reassured herself that her three-year-old was too young to understand what had happened. She felt shaken, but decided not to go for trauma facilitation because she was fine, and so was her son. After all, his behaviour hadn’t changed. But feelings are not facts, and trauma is fact – it is unavoidable. Just as you can’t remain dry when you dive into the ocean, you can’t avoid experiencing trauma when you endure a highly stressful event. It invades you. Energy is physically trapped in the cells of your body, and it does not distinguish between age, sex, race or financial status. It becomes part of you.
But if the trauma is processed, it does not need to become a permanent part of you. Your brain has the capacity to digest and metabolise what happened so it’s absorbed into your system in a healthy and useful manner, but this doesn’t happen without focused effort.

ALSO SEE: 10 practical tips in the event of a hijacking

The effects of childhood trauma have been detailed in a study by Dr Vince Felittli and Dr Robert Anda. Their study on the impacts of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE), on 17 500 adults, revealed chilling results. Trauma impacts on brain development, the immune system, hormone regulation and the way DNA is read and transcribed. The impact of untreated, cumulative trauma over a lifetime has devastating and lasting effects.

Common sources of childhood trauma

  • Psychological abuse – often being sworn at, put down, intimidated or insulted.
  • Physical abuse – being pushed, slapped, or hit often, causing marks or injures.
  • Sexual abuse – being touched or forced to touch others in a sexual way, or perform a sexual act.
  • Substance abuse – living with someone with a drinking or drug problem.
  • Mental illness – living with someone who is mentally ill, such as suffering from depression or feeling suicidal.
  • Domestic violence – witnessing a parent being hit, bitten, kicked, threatened or hurt.
  • Criminal behaviour – having a household member in trouble with the law or in prison.
  • Emotional neglect – not feeling loved or looked after, or not having basic needs met.
  • Parental divorce – when the child is under 18 years of age.

ALSO SEE: How to help your children cope with death, divorce and the loss of a friendship

How the developing brain is shaped by trauma

  • The nucleus accumbens, the pleasure and reward centre of the brain, is altered, increasing the risk of substance dependency.
  • The amygdala, the fear response centre of the brain, is highly stimulated. This leads to the child avoiding situations that most children can deal with, or getting into fights over small things.
  • Trauma inhibits the function of the prefrontal cortex, which helps the child regulate and control his impulses and carry out executive functions, like decision-making and planning, which are essential for learning.

Harvard University’s Centre on the Developing Child explains the impact of this restructuring of the brain. Your child will find it difficult to control his impulses and, therefore, act before he thinks it through or comes up with a healthy plan of action. He will find it difficult to recall instructions, focus his attention and manage numerous tasks. Children are born with the potential to develop these skills, but they need a healthy environment in which to learn and practice them.

ALSO SEE: How to teach your child to make decisions

The toxic stress of trauma can impair the development of these skills as they need three things – the child’s ability to retain short-term memory, the mental flexibility to shift attention as circumstances change and apply new rules in different settings, and self-control to ensure that the response to situations is considered rather than impulsive.

What you can do

Trauma does not have to leave you or your child scarred. Your child can overcome it, process it, and sculpt his neuroplastic brain to lead a dynamic, healthy life. As South African parents, we need to act with insight and help ourselves and our children heal the invisible scars.

The ACE study showed that children who had experienced considerable trauma were:

  • Three times more at risk of developing heart disease and lung cancer.
  • Four times more likely to develop depression.
  • Twelve times more likely to commit suicide.
  • At risk of their life expectancy being reduced by up to 20 years.

How to promote the development of executive functions

  • Create routines.
  • Be a social-skills model. Show your child how to pause and respond rather than react to social triggers.

ALSO SEE: How to develop your child’s social skills

  • Be dependable. Help your child create and maintain supportive and reliable relationships.
  • Role play. Use dress-up and puppet play to practice handling different types of people and life situations so your child learns to think it through and try different responses.
  • Be active. Teach your child to release stress through regular exercise.
  • Grade guidance. In time, reduce the amount of guidance you provide. Move from suggestions to asking your child questions to think through.

Where to get help

  • For a therapist click here.
  • The World Health Organization recommends Eye Movement Desensitizing Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy in the treatment of trauma.
  • Find a practitioner by calling 031 201 0307 or emailing
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