Effects of Trauma During ChildhoodJun 30, 2022 09:31AM ● By Jolene Ross
As trauma responses are becoming better understood, they have been defined into two distinct types: trauma experienced as an adult, better known as PTSD, and trauma experienced in childhood, recently termed developmental trauma, or complex PTSD (CPTSD) or childhood PTSD. Developmental trauma can affect a person well into adulthood and the sufferer may not even be aware that symptoms stem from traumatic experiences in their childhood. This can be particularly hard to identify in situations where the trauma occurred before the memory has been fully developed; before age 3. In some cases, this can affect people more profoundly than if their memory had been fully developed at the time of the traumatic experience as they can feel the trauma but have difficulty placing why.
Causes of developmental trauma include abuse and neglect, witnessing violence, natural disasters, parental issues such as substance abuse, unaddressed mental health issues, serious illness, death or loss of a loved one, and separation from a parent, parent figure or sibling. Social ostracization and being the victim of bullying can also be causes. Traumatic experiences deeply impact individuals as they can physically change the trajectory of neurological development. Often these traumatic childhood experiences begin to resurface during or before midlife.
Past and current traumatic memories are stored in the same location of the brain as current memories, allowing them to cause distressing symptoms that affect people in the present. Signs of being affected by developmental trauma include communication difficulty, shame, feelings of powerlessness, lack of grounding, hopelessness, inexplicable fear, emotional control issues, behavioral regulation issues, flashbacks, nightmares, difficulty trusting others or being overly trusting, anger, risky and self-destructive behaviors, fatigue, attachment issues, anxiety, depression and trouble with dizziness and coordination.
Memories of trauma are often expressed within the physical body, manifesting in various physiological ways, causing symptoms such as stomach upset and nausea, chest tightness and trouble breathing, muscle tension and armoring, throat constriction and overwhelming fatigue. These physiological responses are triggered when a person is experiencing similar emotions and feelings that were experienced during the initial trauma, creating the potential for further trauma reactions and even mental health episodes and breakdowns.
The Potential for Complex PTSD Resulting from COVID-19
As naturally social beings, children have had to work around COVID-19 accommodations while learning how to interact with one another through distanced socialization and play and masks. For many children, not experiencing typical social situations that are crucial for healthy development causes the social skills development to be hindered, possibly putting children at risk for communication issues later in life. These children have also become susceptible to the negative impact of isolation.
Along with a lack of typical socialization and isolation, children are in desperate need of structure and normality, which often was reduced at home during the pandemic as many caregivers were forced to sacrifice structure as homes turned into offices, daycares, restaurants, hospitals and hospice centers, etc. to accommodate all members of the house. Some of the immediate consequences of these difficulties are already being seen through a significant increase in mental health struggles, suicides and suicide attempts in children and teens across the nation.
The goal of treatment for developmental trauma is to move traumatic memories from being stored in the “recent memories” bin to being stored in the “past memories” bin in our brains to reduce or eliminate the distress they cause. It is also essential to help people come out of the state of fight or flight and hypervigilance in which they chronically live.
Three researched and effective treatments for developmental trauma include trauma-informed psychotherapy, neurofeedback and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). When utilizing said treatments or combining multiple forms of treatment, a person can expect to see reductions in physical and emotional symptoms. These therapies can be used in adulthood long after the traumatic event(s) have occurred as well as during childhood soon after the traumatic event(s).
Ideally, when a child has undergone severe trauma, treatment should begin as soon as possible to correct the skewed neurological trajectory. Through these tools, calming the brain, addressing anxiety, improving mood and reducing feelings of shame will prevent and reduce the likelihood that trauma symptoms will arise later in life.
Dr. Jolene Ross is a licensed psychologist and the founder and director of Advanced Neurotherapy, a wellness clinic that utilizes behavioral medicine applications such as quantitative EEG analysis and neurofeedback to improve quality of life for both children and adults. She works with individuals and families challenged with neuro-cognitive, neuro-emotional and neurodevelopmental disorders. For more information, visit AdvancedNeurotherapy.com.