• Regina Rhodes

What Childhood Trauma Does to the Brain & How it Affects Adulthood?

Updated: Oct 8

Children make meaning out of the events they witness and the things that happen to them, and they create an internal map of how the world is. This meaning-making helps them cope. But if children don't make a new internal map as they grow up, their old way of interpreting the world can damage their ability to function as adults.

Andrea Brandt Ph.D. M.F.T.

Mindful Anger



When a child feels intensely threatened by an event, he or she is involved in or witnesses, we call that event a trauma. There is a spectrum of traumatic events or trauma types to which children and adolescents can be exposed.


What is Childhood Trauma, and Did You Experience It?


Childhood trauma is an event, situation, or environment you experienced as a child that left you feeling vulnerable and like you couldn't count on the world or other people to keep you safe.


For many, childhood trauma has the unfortunate consequence of affecting your ways of thinking and relating to the world and others as adults. In conclusion, this can mean you find life at times, challenging and brutal in ways that you might not logically explain.


Anything that leaves a child feeling alone, vulnerable, overwhelmed, or terrified is traumatic. Psychological trauma occurs because of the personal experience and perspective of the individual. Childhood trauma affects the way your neural pathways form or not form. Trauma can cause lasting changes in the areas of the brain that deal with stress, primarily the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex.


Children being made to seem "resilient"?


The failure of the concept of resiliency is that it ignores the possibility of adverse events affecting the kind of people we can become. Not attain the nurturing we need through significant life transitions or, at the extreme, experiencing abuse or neglect are adverse events that we absorb and project our growth in future years.


What does "resilient" mean? Among researchers, it usually means that the person is doing better than expected for their situation, e.g., coping despite neglect. Resilient children are made, not born.


The idea that a child will not be affected by what they do not understand is incorrect. Even if a child does not comprehend the logistics of what is happening, they can understand danger and discord, which causes trauma. Research suggests that even infants are affected by the trauma around them, such as their caregivers' suffering.


Experiences are traumatic because they are unexpected, unwanted, and you are powerless to stop them.


Childhood trauma can result from anything that disrupts a child's sense of safety, including:

  1. An unstable or unsafe environment

  2. Separation from a parent

  3. Sexual, physical, or verbal abuse

  4. Domestic violence

  5. Neglect


But other less apparent experiences in childhood involve environmental and emotional displacements that can be just as traumatic for a child and have only severe consequences for the long-term.


These can include environmental things like:

  1. Living in poverty

  2. Abruptly changing schools

  3. A sick sibling

  4. Living among family discord i.e parents who are always fighting

  5. Living in a violent or dangerous community

  6. Watching a parent being abused or hurt

Or they might be emotional traumas such as:

  1. A humiliating experience at school

  2. Being bullied

  3. A parental figure invoking shame or verbal abuse parent figure

  4. A caregiver not giving proper attention, being neglected

  5. The child having to take the parental role for their parent

  6. Experiencing abandonment by a loved one


It is important to consider, a child can be more affected by trauma than adults as they can sense danger but not have the capabilities to explain it to themselves like an adult, meaning they feel more terrified and helpless.


Childhood Trauma and The Risk of Future Trauma


Experiencing trauma in childhood can result in a severe and long-lasting effect.Some people who experienced childhood trauma also exhibit symptoms of PTSD.


These symptoms can sometimes manifest long after the trauma, although some childhood trauma victims seem to spend their entire lives with emotional shock symptoms.


If you suffered from childhood trauma, it's common to suffer from anxiety and depression as an adult until you seek help to uncover and process your experience.


Other common mental health problems include addictive behavior, self-harm, repressed anger or anger management issues, and eating disorders. With unresolved terror and/or trauma, we run the risk of letting our fear spill into every decision we make in a way that might be paralyzing and dysfunctional.


Understanding Emotional Shock?

Although not a mental diagnosis, mental health professionals may use the term to help you understand your overwhelmed state after a difficult event. Emotional shock is actually your mind and body’s normal and healthy way of processing difficult experiences – and it can take time to get through. The problem arises if emotional shock triggers previous life trauma, anxiety we already suffer, or if it evolves into a more serious mental health issue.


A Few Signs You Are Suffering Emotional Shock

  • Feelings of fear

  • Mental brain fog

  • Physical side effects i.e fight or flight response

  • Feelings of exhaustion

  • Personality changes


When childhood trauma is not resolved, a sense of fear and helplessness carries over into adulthood, allowing further trauma. Nonetheless, even if your trauma happened many years ago, there are measures you can take to overcome the pain, regain your ability to trust, connect with people once again, and recover your sense of emotional stability.




When to Solicit the Help of a Professional Trauma Therapist


Recovering from trauma takes time, and everyone's pace of healing is different. But after months of work and your symptoms aren't letting up, you may need professional help from a trauma expert.


Working through trauma can be a sensitive process. It can be scary, painful, and potentially re-traumatizing, so this healing work is best undertaken with an experienced trauma specialist's help.


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