The Impact of Childhood Trauma

Written By Elizabeth Abbruzza, MA, LMHC, CCPS-C

Children are like wet cement. Whatever falls on them makes an impression. -Haim Ginnot

Over the last ten years the field of health care has become increasingly focused on the impact of adverse childhood experiences. As a child and family therapist I have become unnervingly accustomed to working with children who have experienced trauma and one thing that I have learned is that this is an epidemic. According to the National Survey for Children’s Health, 35 million U.S. children have experienced some degree of childhood trauma. This trauma can be defined as “an exceptional experience in which powerful and dangerous events overwhelm the person’s ability to cope” (Rice & Groved, 2005, p.5). Common adverse childhood experiences that may result in a trauma response include:

  • Substance abuse in the home
  • Parental separation or divorce
  • Mental illness in the home
  • Domestic violence in the home
  • Death of a parent or loved one
  • Parental incarceration
  • Experience of abuse or neglect (sexual, psychological or physical)

Although this is not an extensive list, it helps provide perspective that trauma is real, and it is more prevalent in our culture than we would like to admit. Trauma is toxic to the brain and can impact development and learning in many ways. During times of extreme stress our brain releases chemicals and enters survival mode with the natural instincts to fight, flight or freeze. Our bodies can tolerate small amounts of these chemicals, but children exposed to complex or acute trauma can remain consistently in survival mode, flooding their brains with these chemicals that then become toxic. At this point a child’s brain will shift from a focus on growth and development to a focus on stress response. This can be detrimental to a developing brain, circuits are disrupted and the foundation for learning is weakened. The constant, high stress hormones can go on to impact memory, mood, relational skills and executive functioning.

In my work I have sat with individuals in their trauma as it impacts their happiness, relationships and coping ability. I have learned that all experiences are different, and the child’s interpretation of the event drives the severity in which it impacts them. There has long been debate in the field of mental health about the importance of the trauma narrative or understanding the story of the trauma in order to understand the child’s behavior. I believe more important than the trauma narrative is the effect of the traumatic event on the child. Trauma is more than just a story and in order to foster healing and growth I need to understand its influence across each child’s domains of living.

As I reflect on the prevalence of childhood trauma and its long-term impacts, I am reminded that trauma occurs everywhere, and no one is immune. All populations, ethnicities, cultures, religions, socioeconomic statuses and levels of education are affected. But I am also reminded that children are resilient and even with trauma they can heal, grow, learn and succeed with the right support. My hope is that we can continue the conversation about childhood trauma, incorporate it into our education system and look through a trauma informed lens to identify the children who need a little extra support.

Souers, K., & Hall, P. A. (2016). Fostering resilient learners: Strategies for creating a trauma-sensitive classroom. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.


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