How Trauma Damages a Child's Developing Brain

I recently finished reading the novel, Before We Were Yours. It is based on a true story about the Tennessee Children’s Home Society and its Director, Georgia Tann.

Ms. Tann, a prominent member of society, created a network of police, doctors, and social workers to kidnap newborn, infant, and young children of parents living in poverty but loving and caring for their children, along with a network of judges and politicians who covered for and/or allowed Tann and the Tennessee Children’s Home Society’s schemes to continue unchecked from the 1920s to the 1950s. These kidnapped children were then “sold” for adoption through the Tennessee Children’s Home Society orphanage to childless couples across the country.

Having just read this book and still reeling from the trauma the majority of these children must have suffered, I was moved to read Reverend Patricia Templeton’s sermon/article, “Father’s Day in America,” which opens with this line, “I recently finished a haunting novel, Before We Were Yours, in which….” And it was Reverend Templeton’s statements quoted next that moved me to want to write this post:

Thousands of children were adopted over those decades. More than 500 children under Tann’s care died or disappeared.

Reading this novel I wondered: How could this be allowed to happen? How could children be torn away from parents who loved them? Why didn’t anyone do anything to stop it? 

And then I turned on the news.

Different children, different circumstances, but the same anguished cries from parents and children torn apart.”

* * *

“This week a United States senator, Jeff Merkley, was denied entrance to one border facility. After touring a second, he said he saw children being warehoused in cages, sleeping on the floor, allowed out two hours a day.

“This is completely outside the soul of our nation,” Merkley said.

“Sadly, Merkley is wrong about that.

“We have a history of engaging in such horrors, beginning with the children of slaves being taken away from their parents and sold to the highest bidder, or parents sold as their children were left behind.

“After slavery was outlawed, the practice shifted to indigenous children. From the late 1800s until the 1970s, Native American children were forcibly separated from their families and sent to Indian boarding schools, where they were stripped of their names, their native language, religion, and culture.

“And now it is happening to children of immigrants, families coming here in search of freedom and a better life.”

To read the rest of Reverend Templeton’s article/ sermon, click here.

Trauma Changes a Child’s Brain

Children experience this kind of trauma, not only in America but around the world. And it is not only this kind of trauma. It’s the trauma a child experiences living in poverty or a war zone or living in a family with a parent with untreated addiction or mental disorder. And it is these kinds of trauma that drastically change a child’s brain because trauma causes toxic stress and toxic stress changes brain health and function.

When we understand this and the cost of untreated childhood trauma, also known as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), – and not just to the child and his/her family, but to communities and society as a whole – we can pull together to stop/change the underlying practices that set up the trauma (ACEs) that create the toxic stress that cause the brain changes in the first place.

Understanding Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)

Below is taken from my article, The Developing Brain & Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), appearing on ACEs Connection.com.

ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) refers to traumatic incidents in childhood and were identified in the epidemiological CDC-Kaiser Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study). This study of 17,000 participants looked at how 10 types of childhood trauma (ACEs) affect long-term health. These include: physical, emotional and sexual abuse; physical and emotional neglect; living with a family member who’s addicted to alcohol or other substances, or who’s depressed or has other mental illnesses; experiencing parental divorce or separation; having a family member who’s incarcerated; and witnessing a mother being abused.The impacts of these ACEs are related to toxic stress, which is the repeated activation of the brain’s fight-or-flight stress response system (FFSR) within the Limbic System.

How Trauma Damages a Child's Developing BrainLike other instinctual neural network wiring – puberty, for example, the FFSR is an instinctually wired system built into the human species. It is a system that was intended to kick into gear when mankind was faced with physical danger. This makes sense when we recall that back in the day the primary danger humans faced was physical danger, as in, “Run or Fight,” but don’t just stand there!

Thus, this system is designed to prepare the body to do just that – fight or run, or if necessary, freeze. And it’s a two-part system. One part is the activation — the part that gets the FFSR going fast and without thought. It’s called the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS). The second part is the tamping down — returning to normal. This is called the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS).

Turning the Fight or Flight Stress Response On and Off

In very GENERAL terms, your nervous system works as follows.

A cue (such as danger-producing emotions like fear, anxiety, and anger) triggers the key stress hormones, adrenaline (epinephrine) and cortisol to activate the SNS. These stress hormones cause a number of things to happen to help us RUN or FIGHT. 

They cause blood vessels to the skin to constrict to lessen blood loss if injured. They shut down the digestive system in order to conserve glucose needed for energy to run or fight. They cause muscles in the neck, shoulders and back to constrict. They dilate the bronchial tubes in the lungs in order to carry more oxygen to the muscles. And they increase heart rate to push blood flow to large muscles in order to react quickly, run fast or come out fighting. It is truly astounding what the FFSR does in such a short period when triggered (often mere milliseconds, which is how a person jumps out of the way of an oncoming car). This kind of stress is known as normal stress.

Today, however, most of our stress is triggered by thoughts, emotions and memories of negative experiences, not by immediate physical danger. In other words, it might be anger at a parent over the mean, horrible things they said, frustration with a teacher’s reprimand, or fear of what’s going to happen when we get home, arrive at work or enter the playground at recess. Because we can have these stress-triggering emotions repeatedly throughout our day, a child/teen/adult can repeatedly activate the FFSR.

The Physical Consequences of Chronic Stress

There are two big problems with chronic activation of the FFSR  – if one does not have solid, self-soothing practices they engage to stop the escalation of the SNS. The first is that a child/teen/adult rarely does the physical running or fighting these changes are meant to support. Instead, all of that “stuff” (increased glucose, shutting down of the digestive system, increased heart rate, and high levels of stress hormones) “sits” and builds up in various body tissues until (or if) it is reabsorbed or used. In other words, it becomes toxic stress because the PNS never gets to fully do its part.

The physical health consequences of regularly activating the FFSR, but not carrying it through to RUN or FIGHT, are many. They can include:

  • upset stomach or other stomach problems 
  • migraines
  • headaches
  • skin rashes
  • hair loss (constricting blood vessels to the skin over and over)
  • racing heartbeat
  • back pain
  • muscle aches
  • sleep problems
  • changes in eating habits (causing obesity or weight loss)
  • dizziness and more.

how-stress-affects-the-body-1

Image Source: https://adrenalfatigue.org/str…stress-affects-body/

The Mental Consequences of Chronic Stress

The mental health consequences of regularly activating the FFSRS are equally troubling. These include:

  • anxiety
  • depression
  • feelings of hopelessness or helplessness
  • difficulty concentrating or
  • a desperate need to be in control.

As importantly, they change our routine thoughts, feelings and behaviors.

The second problem is that a child/teen/adult maps neural networks to engage this system when confronted with stress producing emotions, thoughts or memories, unrelated to the original ACEs of the stress producing emotions, thoughts or memories. This means when that child/teen/adult is confronted by anything that triggers those danger-producing emotions, such as anxiety, fear and anger, their embedded maps of “reactionary” coping skills and behaviors kick in because the brain has mapped the reaction as critical to survival. (It’s mapped in the limbic system.)

Common fight, flight, freeze (or appease) “reactionary” coping skills, include:

Yelling, crying, physically lashing out. This is especially true for children – they’re mad and don’t have an understanding, let alone words, to understand/explain why so they come out fighting – a natural outcome of activating the FFSR. (Fight)

Shutting down emotionally when in conflict or facing an angry person. The child/teen learned that not reacting or engaging or confronting an angry person – the source of their ACE(s), for example – kept them safe. (Freeze)

Working hard to please everyone, being hyper aware of how others feel in an attempt to keep things going smoothly. (Appease)

Verbally lashing out in anger, blaming others or something else for how we feel, trying to manipulate others into doing what we think is necessary to keep the peace.

If a child/teen does not have protective (resilience) factors in place to guide that child/teen through the various brain developmental years from birth on, a child/teen experiencing ACEs tends to rely on their “reactionary” (Limbic System) coping skills rather than their “thinking” (Cerebral Cortex). The limbic system overrides the cerebral cortex functions. Not only that but it carries into adulthood and thereby changes a child/teen/adults’s physical and emotional health and quality of life across a lifetime.

For more on ACEs and the developing brain, please read the rest of my article.

“Those who separate immigrant children from parents might as well be beating them.”

And for more on all of this, please check out Jane Stevens, founder, and editor of ACEs Connection’s article, “Those who separate immigrant children from parents might as well be beating them with truncheons.” To pique your interest, I share quotes from her article, below:

To pretend that separated children do not grow up with the shrapnel of this traumatic experience embedded in their minds is to disregard everything we know about child development, the brain, and trauma,’ says a petition signed by more than 9,000 mental health professionals and 172 organizations.

“Many people who see reports of children separated from their parents might think that, because they’re not crying, that they’ve adjusted. Or, if they are crying, they’ll eventually stop and get over it.

“But here’s the reality: In terms of the effects on children’s brains, those who participate in separating children from their parents and locking them up in detainment centers might as well be beating them with truncheons.

“That might seem harsh, especially for those well-intentioned people working for the Department of Health and Human Services who are trying to do their best to care for immigrant kids taken from their parents. But the reality is that kids’ brains can’t distinguish between toxic stress caused by being separated from a parent, or toxic stress caused by living in an unsafe neighborhood, or toxic stress caused by living in a war zone, or toxic stress caused by witnessing violence outside the home, or toxic stress caused by suffering a beating, or toxic stress caused by living with an alcoholic parent, or toxic stress caused by being bullied.”

“It’s all toxic stress, and it all damages a child’s developing brain.”

Guest Author

Lisa Frederiksen

Author | Speaker | Consultant | Founder at BreakingTheCycles.com
Lisa is the author of hundreds of articles and 11 books, including “If You Loved Me, You’d Stop!,” “Addiction Recovery: What Helps, What Doesn’t,” and “Secondhand Drinking: the Phenomenon That Affects Millions.” She is a national keynote speaker with over 25 years speaking experience, consultant, and founder of BreakingTheCycles.com. She has spent more than 15 years studying 21st-century brain research in order to write, speak, and consult on the topics covered in her Blog Categories.

12 Comments

  1. I’m horrified reading the stories.

    I’d like to add on the freeze response. It happens when a child gets frozen in a time bubble, thereby creating blocks that would paralyse him in his adult life.

    Most certainly, there are vast negative consequences that can result from toxic stress created in childhood.

    • Good addition, Evelyn. Yes, freezing is another instinctual response with its own challenges.

  2. Thank you for spreading awareness of this issue. It is horrifying to hear these stories. As someone who has lived a life of chronic stress, starting at an early age, I know how damaging can be. Let’s spread this information far and wide.

    • Attitudes about this and many mental health issues are starting to change, thankfully. Information is key!

  3. Debbie this story took me right back to my first days in hostel as a student and my roommate was an aboriginal girl who like many other Australian aboriginals were removed at birth or as toddlers from their mothers and put in homes for girls and boys. So sad as is this story. The effects having a long term effect

    • Suzie, that is so sad! Little did they know that they were damaging her brain. I hope she’s OK.

  4. Explains the behaviour of Adult children who have been subjected to abuse

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