The Impact of Trauma on a Child’s Brain

In discussing how children and adults respond to trauma, we have referenced the work of Dr. Bruce Perry. He is a resource and has been a voice internationally in the cause of helping children who have been traumatized. Dr. Perry also has provided information regarding brain states and the impact of trauma on a child’s brain. This information continues to help us discover the nature and effects of trauma in children.

 What happens to a child’s brain during trauma?


boy crying
A trauma sears the brain with memories.

Trauma for a child can look like the following:

  • A child can be traumatized through one overwhelming fear-producing event or many events over time.
  •  Trauma can occur when a child is attacked; is physically, sexually or emotionally harmed; observes someone else being harmed; or believes he/she or a significant other is going to be harmed.
  •  A trauma sears the brain with memories, often stored in lower areas. Memories are often less conscious and may involve more somatic, reactive and reflexive responses than conscious ones.
  • Children whose brains have been traumatized have brain baseline states that are set higher than non-traumatized children.
  •  Traumatized children are less able to achieve a calm brain state, even at rest.
  •  Whenever a trauma-based memory is triggered (smells, sounds, shapes, visual cues, touch, words, gestures) or a child feels at all threatened, he or she can instantaneously revert to a more primitive brain state.
  • When trauma occurs to a very young child (or girls) the result often is dissociation. Dissociation can be described as: “checking out,” becoming disengaged, shutting down, distancing, feeling as if he/she is “in a play,” or experiencing surrealism, and often having a lowered heart rate.
  • When the trauma occurs to boys (or older children), the result often is hyper-arousal.  Hyper-arousal can be described as being and feeling on edge, acting in ways that are hyper-vigilant, overreactive, volatile, aggressive, and often having a higher heart rate.

Developing your “trauma lenses”

Children who are displaying dissociative or hyper-arousal behaviors can be assessed as inattentive, distracted, rebellious, defiant.

In many instances, children who are displaying dissociative or hyper-arousal behaviors can be assessed as inattentive, distracted, rebellious, defiant (or other similar labels).  However, a traumatic event could be the reason the child behaves in these ways.

For those who know and work with children and teenagers—or see them within our own families—it is vital that we have trauma lenses intact. If we can look carefully we may identify the impact of trauma as a reason for certain emerging behaviors. Remember, the impact of trauma is a strong invisible force that the child or teenager is feeling that is undetectable to the outside world.

Gerry Vassar, President/CEO, Lakeside Educational Network

Information taken from Enhancing Trauma Awareness, Diane Wagenhals, 2008.  All rights reserved.  Licensed materials.

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