A Child's Brain & Body on Trauma

By definition, vulnerable children, those who have lost one or both parents, are at a high risk for trauma. Any event where a child perceives their life is in danger is considered a traumatic event. For children across the globe, these events could include a wide range of experiences such as political violence, sexual abuse, earthquakes or other natural disasters.

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Psychologists now know that trauma, and especially repeated trauma, can have a lasting effect on a child’s developing brain and body. Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk, a distinguished researcher in PTSD and child trauma, shares ways that children are affected by trauma in his book, The Body Keeps The Score. Here are only three ways repeated trauma can change a child’s life:

1.     Trauma teaches helplessness

"Children with histories of abuse & neglect learn that their terror, pleading and crying do not register with their caregiver…In effect they’re being conditioned to give up when they face challenges later in life.”

2.     Trauma effects physical development

In one study of incest survivors, researchers found a cellular imbalance in survivors that affected their immune systems, making them unable to distinguish actual threats and creating the potential for the immune system to attack the body’s own cells. “Our study showed that, on a deep level, the bodies of incest victims have trouble distinguishing between danger and safety…The past is impressed not only on their minds, and in misinterpretations of innocuous events…but also on the very core of their beings: in the safety of their bodies.”

3.     Trauma puts survivors at risk of disease

Another study found that adults who had experienced repeated trauma as a child have a higher chance of deadly conditions such as cancer, emphysema, heart disease and liver disease. Van der Kolk concludes, “The ongoing stress on the body keeps taking its toll.”

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There are ways to treat the effects of trauma in children and adults. However, an important weapon against trauma is education and prevention. When communities know what to look for and how to support vulnerable children, traumatic events can be avoided and repeated trauma can be circumvented. Side by Side partners with community organizations to provide financial and emotional support systems to vulnerable families and ensure children are provided a safe and full education. Our hope is that these partnerships will decrease children’s exposure to traumatic events and foster resiliency.

Citation: Van der Kolk, Bessel A. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. New York: Viking, 2014.