Help is Here: Understanding childhood trauma

Michelle Fane, M.S. LCMHC
Clinical Director Outpatient Services
Howard Center

By MICHELLE FANE

Life is full of unexpected twists and turns. We learn and grow with each challenge. When things that happen to us — or around us — become traumatic, life can take a turn for the worse. Childhood trauma is a term that refers to any stress that puts a child’s physical, social, and emotional development at risk. Children who witness or experience extreme adverse events, such as war or natural disasters, domestic violence, physical or sexual abuse, neglect, or intense amounts of stress, can experience profound effects that manifest years later.

These events are called Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), and they pose a threat to the child’s life, their sense of safety, and their capacity to cope. When a child feels afraid and helpless, with no sense of control, the body’s stress response system is continuously activated. In times of real or perceived danger, a cascade of hormones causes our heart to pump fast, our pupils to get bigger, and our airways to open wider to prepare for survival. When the danger is in a place that is supposed to be safe for a child, such as the home, this response is no longer a healthy reaction. Instead, it damages health, often resulting in chronic illness, depression, mental health issues, violent behavior, or being a victim of violence. As the numbers of ACEs increase, so does the risk for outcomes such as risky health behaviors, chronic health conditions, low life-potential and early death. 

For many children, even when they are safe, they may struggle controlling their emotions, attention, impulses, or behaviors. They may become aggressive or shut down. They may recreate their experiences in their play or have nightmares about them. They may look withdrawn and uninterested. They may develop worries and struggle with food issues and concerns, self-care, peer relationships, and schoolwork. They may have difficulty expressing their feelings or forming healthy connections.

Toxic stress affects certain parts of the brain at a molecular level. The pleasure and reward areas in the brain are impacted such that these children become more vulnerable to substance use. The part of the brain that is responsible for learning and impulse control becomes significantly compromised, making it common for these children to struggle at school. The fear response center is altered as well, leading to high risk behaviors. Even in the absence of the above risks, children with ACEs are still at a dramatically higher risk to develop seven out of the 10 leading causes of death in the United States. This prefect storm of disrupted development – social-emotional impairment, adoption of risky behaviors and increased risk for major illnesses – decreases the life span notably. Owing to advances in science, we now can say, “What happened to you?” instead of “What is wrong with you!” 

It’s important to understand that ACEs are preventable and treatable, and the impacts of trauma are reversible. Children can build resilience to ACEs through fostering healthy relationships with adults, being able to openly discuss emotions, and having individuals in their lives who they can turn to for support and help. 

It starts by connecting with the child and understanding that aggression is often a defense mechanism for helplessness and acting out is a form of remembering trauma. It takes a village, but even one secure, strong adult connection can help to establish a sense of safety and facilitate growth by building on strengths and help a child to heal and build resilience.

If you are at a loss about how to begin the healing process, speak to your healthcare professional and ask for a trauma informed provider who specializes in supporting individuals with trauma transformation.

Howard Center improves the wellbeing of our community by helping people with mental health, substance use, and developmental services. Help is here. 802-488-6000 or howardcenter.org.

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