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The Long-Term Effects of Childhood Trauma

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Parents want what is best for their children, and do what they can to provide for them. Protecting them from any harm or negative experiences they may face. Children have yet to go through development to be able to process different life experiences. Complex topics that children are not able to grasp just yet, such as death, war, poverty, natural disasters and things of that nature. With a full future ahead, their caregiver attempts to shield them from this in order for them to have a childhood full of innocence and care free, to have that little time period in their life where their actions do not face major consequences, and acquire their sense of morality. These experiences happen in life naturally, although inevitably, things life trauma can affect the mind and the brain. As much as they try to protect their children from harm’s way, there is a psychological effect that may occur and last until other stages of their lives.

Unlike adults, whose minds are developed to understand extreme experiences, children are continuously developing and undergoing pivotal stages in which it’s difficult to process certain experiences. In children specifically, trauma holds a unique and much larger distress. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network specifically defines it as, “when a child feels intensely threatened by an event he or she is involved in or witness”. Trauma has a bigger impact on children because of their ever changing and developing brains. “Abuse, neglect, under-stimulation, and prolonged shame reduce levels of endorphins, CRF, and dopamine and increase stress hormones and noradrenalin. This biochemical environment inhibits plasticity and creates a vulnerability to psychopathology” (Cozolino). According to The NCTSN, traumas range from bullying, community, natural disasters, domestic violence, early childhood, medical, physical abuse, refugee, sexual abuse, terrorism, and violence. The different rates of trauma vary on the type of sample, measure, informant source, and other factors. The American Psychological Association estimates that witnessing community violence ranges from 39% to 85% and victimization 66%. Youth sexual abuse are 25% to 43%. The race and ethnicity, economic status, and gender affects these rates of trauma in children as well as their reaction. Distress is universal in all victims of trauma, although the response to these traumatic events differ based off of the child’s age race/ethnicity, previous trauma exposure, and resources that are available to the child. Some of these reactions include: developing new fears, sleep disturbances, sadness, loss of interest in daily activities, irritability, reduced concentration, as well as, but not limiting to, the decline of school work.

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In terms of psychology, children go through different stages. When children go through trauma, it can cause a shift in the way they think, and the way the brain behaves. An example of this is chronic hyper arousal which comes from a disruption in the child’s hormones. This puts the body in a state of high alert when thinking about the traumatic event, while the event may not occur, the body behaves if it is. This is one of the primary symptoms of PTSD or post traumatic stress disorder. This symptom is associated with a plethora of its own symptoms such as sleeping difficulties, irritability, constant anxiety, as well as, but not limited to a sense of guilt and shame ( A child dealing with a lot of stress early on in their lives can affect the way their body regulates important hormones such as the stress hormone cortisol. The body shifts in a fight or flight response which was beneficial for primitive survival. This bodily function served useful, the traumatic experiences a child may recall puts the body in this state as if it were reoccurring. Furthermore, the brain’s function is altered through the stress a child may face. The increase of hormones during this stage of development affects many regions of the brain including the hippocampus, amygdala, corpus callosum, broca’s area, and the cortex – frontal lobes. Previously mentioned, the hormone cortisol is ever present due to trauma as it is responsible for the body to feel stress resulting in a decrease in size of the hippocampus, the sector of the brain for long term memory. A survivor of trauma can experience difficulties with the ability to learn, memorize, as well as attention. The amygdala’s primary function relates to the human bodies emotional reaction. Specifically, relating to the brain fear response to environmental stimuli (Edwards, 2005). Trauma causes changes to its function by making the body easily provoked emotionally as well as regulating their own emotions, thus, causing emotional instability. Trauma also impacts the corpus callosum, the region that connects the left and right side of the brain affecting coordination. The portion of the brain that is responsible for speech and writing is known as the broca’s area. Those affected by trauma may find themselves having difficulties speaking about their traumatic experience as well as a cognitive delay. “On the whole, children exposed to neglect may be more vulnerable to general delays in cognitive and language development. Neglected children and those raised in poverty may be more at risk of general cognitive delay than those exposed to abuse” (Mclean, 2016). Neglect and poverty as a child falls under the criteria for childhood trauma. Trauma’s impact on the frontal lobe, consequently reduces it’s activity. “Children with abuse-related PTSD have been found to have significantly poorer attention and executive function compared with a matched sample of non-maltreated children: they made more errors in tasks of sustained attention, and were more easily distracted and more impulsive than their matched peers” (Mclean, 2016).

Looking at the impacts that trauma has on the biology of the mind, brain and body, we can see, that the impacts these effects have on the day to day life of these survivors of trauma is especially important. Knowing what difficulties they have that has resulted from trauma can help them find different resources they may need or accommodations they may receive from a workplace, school, or even at home. To avoid certain triggers, or have a good support group of people to help guide through life’s difficulties. Those who have been impacted from complex trauma early on may experience body dysregulation. This is defined as ‘the over or under response to sensory stimuli’ (The National Child Trauma Stress Network). This can affect the victims throughout their life, from different sensations. This child stress network also describes the sense of hypersensitivity to smells, touch, light, or sounds. As for the under response aspect, they may suffer from anesthesia and analgesia, which describes the phenomenon of one not being able to feel sensations of pain, or being aware of suffering from any physical issues. “In patients with PTSD, stress-induced analgesia is a key component of the broader phenomenon of dissociation, which also entails depersonalization and derealization” (Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience, 2011). While this may seem like a good thing, but in actuality can make certain issues go unnoticed. This makes it especially important to be wary of the mental health of children that suffer from experiencing and witnessing very traumatic events. While some may argue that children are too young to comprehend these events is the same reason why it is harmful to them. Furthermore, the effects on the adolescent stages of development or puberty, takes on a different form.

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The Long-Term Effects of Childhood Trauma. (2022, September 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 2, 2023, from
“The Long-Term Effects of Childhood Trauma.” Edubirdie, 01 Sept. 2022,
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