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The Unseen Effects of Childhood Trauma

Many children who come into care have experienced trauma. Read about the unseen effects of childhood trauma and how understanding trauma can help young people later on.

February 1 2023 - 8 min read

When you think of a traumatic experience, many people immediately imagine something drastic like fighting in a war, being a victim of a serious car crash, or surviving a serious illness. However, in childhood, traumatic events are often less severe than this, and they can have long-lasting, hidden impacts that will affect the child throughout their childhood and into their adult life.

Almost everybody has experienced some kind of traumatic experience in childhood. Remember that as children, we are less able to regulate our emotions. Our ability to see the bigger picture does not start to develop until around the age of five or six, and kids are much more focused on themselves than adults. This means that events that you may not consider to be very traumatic for an adult can have a significant effect on children who may blame themselves for it happening.

Dealing with an angry parent, a parent with addiction problems, or witnessing domestic violence in the home are all traumatic events for children. Even an amicable divorce or separation of parents can become a very traumatic experience for a child who may not be able to comprehend what is happening or see the parents’ point of view, leading them to blame themselves for what they perceive as abandonment.

Adverse Childhood Experiences

There are certain adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) that children may experience before the age of 18 that can have a lasting impact on their mental and physical health. It is important to bear in mind that events that may not impact adults as much can have a long-lasting effect on children since childhood is such a vulnerable time and the brain is still developing. Some examples of ACEs include:

  • Parents separating or divorcing
  • Abandonment or neglect
  • Experiencing physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
  • Being a child in a household where there is alcoholism or substance abuse present
  • One or more parents being mentally unwell
  • One or more parents being in prison
  • Losing a family member to suicide
  • Witnessing domestic violence within the home

How Trauma Affects the Developing Brain

Children are still developing, and the brain continues to develop until the age of 25. Because of this, experiencing a traumatic event in childhood, or living through a prolonged traumatic experience can cause the child’s brain to develop differently to how it normally should.

Children who experience ACEs and traumatic events in their childhood might experience a range of side effects including difficulty forming relationships with others, depression, anxiety, a higher risk of substance abuse, and a higher risk of suicide attempts. The impacts of childhood trauma do not go away when the child grows up and reaches adulthood. Adults who experienced childhood trauma are more likely to have health and social difficulties.

Complex PTSD

Complex PTSD is a common response in people who have been in a traumatic situation, such as witnessing domestic violence at home, for a prolonged period. Complex PTSD differs from PTSD. With PTSD, which is often associated with soldiers, the symptoms are the result of one traumatic event. For example, somebody who struggles with symptoms of anxiety, flashbacks, and panic attacks after being involved in a car crash is struggling with PTSD.

Complex PTSD is a condition that can develop in somebody who has been trapped in a traumatic situation for a prolonged period with no immediate way out. This is most common in children from abusive households, or households where one or more parent has drug abuse or alcohol problems, or a mental health condition that impacts their parenting style. Children may feel powerless to do anything about the situation that they are in, which can further the trauma that they experience.

Complex PTSD is a complicated condition, and symptoms are not often obvious. Children with complex PTSD may experience behavioural issues, or struggle with panic attacks, depression, and anxiety. It can also cause emotional flashbacks, which are flashbacks where the child feels the same way as they did when they were in the traumatic situation.

Life in Survival Mode

Children who are brought up in toxic households and experience traumatic situations quickly learn to live their life in survival mode. This is especially true in the case of a child who has been brought up by one or more abusive parents. In this situation, children quickly learn to be on high alert all the time. This causes the amygdala, which is the ‘fight or flight’ centre of the brain, to become over-developed. At the same time, the child is not getting as much of a chance to develop the other parts of their brain that deal with things like building relationships, empathy, and learning.

A child who has grown up in or spent a lot of time in this kind of volatile situation may be too busy being on high alert that they struggle with doing anything else. They may always expect the worst to happen, and it may seem like they find it impossible to relax. While retraining the brain to not be on high alert all the time is not something that can happen overnight, providing a physically and emotionally safe place for the child is a good place to start.

Dorsal Vagal Shutdown

Most of us have heard about the fight or flight response, where your brain and body prepare to respond to a perceived or real threat by either running away from it or fighting it head-on. However, there are two other main responses that may not be as well-known: the freeze and fawn responses. These responses may show up in children who have found that fleeing or fighting doesn’t help the situation for them.

Dorsal vagal shutdown is the final stage of the threat response process, where the body and mind start to shut off and become numb. A ‘freeze’ response is not uncommon when a child or an adult is in dorsal vagal shutdown. They may find it difficult to do the things that they enjoy or focus on the things that they need to do such as schoolwork. They may seem unresponsive at times or present as depressed. If traditional depression treatments, such as anti-depressants or talk therapy are having no effect, then it is more likely to be dorsal vagal shutdown than typical depression.

The fawn response is another common one to look out for in children who have been abused or have lived in a toxic situation. This is often common in children who have learned over time that simply doing what their abuser wanted meant that they would get out of the situation faster or be safer. Children with a fawn response might not know how to set healthy boundaries or may become people pleasers, saying yes to everything without knowing how to give any consideration to how they feel.

Attachment Style

Disorganised Attachment Style

Each person has an attachment style – this is typically either secure, anxious, dismissive-avoidant, or disorganised (also known as fearful-avoidant). In children who have experienced trauma, a fearful avoidant or disorganised attachment style tends to be more common.

Attachment styles can change throughout our lives, but our childhood experiences tend to have the biggest impact on shaping them. In the case of a disorganised attachment style, this tends to develop when the person in the child’s life who is meant to be a source of support and safety for them, such as a parent or main care giver, is also abusive or harmful in some way to the child. This combination of safety and fear coming from the same person is confusing for the young brain, leading to a situation where the child wants a connection with others, but is also very fearful of it, and might push it away when they get it, which is characteristic of a fearful avoidant attachment style.

Comfortable in Chaos

Children who have been brought up in chaotic, toxic, and abusive homes may know no different. Their brain has gotten used to the highs and lows of this kind of environment, which is why it’s not uncommon for them to be ‘comfortable in chaos’.

This isn’t to say that a child who has been through trauma enjoys chaos – far from it. However, their brain may be used to the ‘calm before the storm’ from their previous environment. It may take some time for them to get used to being in a calm, safe household where they do not have to wait for the other shoe to drop.

Hidden Effects of Childhood Trauma

Childhood trauma impacts the life of the child or adult who has experienced it in many ways. These may not always be immediately obvious as a side effect of the traumatic event or traumatic period that they have experienced.

If you are looking to become a foster parent with us or need a transfer foster agency, it is essential to become trauma-informed and have a solid understanding of how trauma can shape the behaviour and responses of your foster child.

Childhood trauma isn’t just about experiencing drastic events as a child. There are several adverse childhood experiences that can alter a child’s brain and behaviour for a long time. Understanding how trauma affects children and how it might show up in a child’s behaviour is essential for foster parents.

At Fostering People we use the PACE therapeutic model with all of our fostering families. Our therapeutic approach means that through our support and training we’ll help you to understand children’s behaviour and work together to start to heal the effects of the trauma they have experienced.