What makes us who we are?
It’s an age-old question, the nature/nurture debate one of the oldest discussions in psychological history. Although modern psychologists have discovered that our personalities, in fact, develop from the intersection of the two– a mix of genetic and sociocultural influences combined– it turns out that our experiences in childhood play a major role in shaping who we grow up to be. If your parents insist that you always wash your hands before dinner, for example, chances are that you’ll mimic that behavior into adulthood. Much of our current identities stem from these early childhood experiences and patterns, impressed upon us by our foundational environments. The trouble comes, however, when those same experiences are harmful or distressing. Because childhood is such a critical period for the development of physical and mental characteristics, trauma experienced during our early years can have dramatic, far reaching effects. Various studies, chief among them the 1997 CDC-Kaiser ACE Study, have proved that childhood trauma dramatically increases the risk for both biological and psychological difficulties alike. This project will further explore the details of these developmental ramifications, while also detailing steps to improve the current experiences and treatment of those who have experienced childhood trauma themselves.
So, what is the ACE study?
The CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study was a monumental investigation of the connection between childhood abuse and neglect and later-life health and well-being. The study proved that there was a major link between adverse childhood experiences– such as abuse, neglect, and household disruption– and diminished quality of life as an adult. See below for a helpful infographic.
Still interested to learn more? See this highly insightful TedTalk by Nadine Burke Harris, California’s surgeon general.
Wow, I never knew that! Wait… how do I know all this information is legitimate?
Well don’t take it from me, take it from the expert! I interviewed Dr. Rahn Minagawa, a forensic psychologist in San Diego, CA, about the impacts of trauma on childhood development. Highlighted below are some of the most striking moments from our interview.
To what extent do you think our foundational environments (e.g. the manner in which/where we grow up) affect our psychology?
I would say that the environment in which we are raised has a tremendous impact on our future level of psychological functioning and personality development. Environmental impacts that have been shown to influence development include the family environment (or milieu) – whether or not a child was raised in an abusive household, if parents were absent or suffered from mental issues and/or substance abuse problems), the community environment – if a child is exposed to gang activity, community violence and community criminal activity, they are far more likely to become involved in the juvenile and criminal justice systems, and the school environment – level of violence and gang activity at the school, lack of resources in the classroom, lack of counselors and nurses, can all have a significant impact on a child’s future development.
What are some of the biggest impacts trauma can have on developing children?
Multiple traumas experienced by children and teenagers have a profound effect on development in terms of attachment (ability to relate to others), biology (interfering with normal brain development), affect regulation (being unable to control feelings of anger and anxiety), behavioral control (getting into trouble at school and the community), dissociation (experiencing flashbacks), self-concept (one’s sense of self and worth) and cognition (difficulties in executive functioning, and problems with planning and anticipation). These represent seven domains of impairment identified as occurring in children exposed to multiple traumas.
Do we see any purely neurological effects?
Minors exposed to multiple traumas invest energy into survival instead of developmental mastery. Furthermore, research into complex trauma as reported by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network suggests that trauma interferes with the integration of left and right hemisphere brain functioning, which explains traumatized minor’s “irrational” ways of behaving under stress. Under stress, their analytical capacities (left brain based) disintegrate, and their emotional (right brain based) schemas of the world take over, causing them to react with uncontrolled helplessness and rage… The current research on the impact of trauma on the developing brain reveals that children and teenagers exposed to traumas have structural changes in the brain that are manifested in problems with decision making, emotional reactivity, and cognitive distortions. These changes are not fully under the control of the individual, but with treatment and time, the behaviors and reactions of the traumatized individual can be ameliorated.
As you can see, the impacts of trauma on childhood development are very real and very serious. So that begs the question:
What can we do?
Most of the biggest issues for children impacted by ACEs arise from a lack of understanding from those around them. Because of the dramatic impacts of trauma, many of these children may have extreme reactions to seemingly innocuous events or situations– such as a routine doctors visit or a schoolyard disagreement. If the people around them don’t understand why these reactions occur, then these children are often misunderstood and treated in ways that are unhealthy and ineffective. According to Psychology Today, “it is important for everyone to understand that victims of traumatic events will not always react or behave in the way that we might expect… Public education, prevention, early identification and intervention, and effective trauma treatment are all necessary to break the cycle of violence. We need to intensify educational efforts to expand the availability of trauma-informed care.”
What is trauma-informed care, you may ask? Well, trauma-informed care means that affected individuals’ past trauma (and any subsequent coping mechanisms) are taken into account whenever they may require assistance or treatment. With trauma-informed care, there’s an added emphasis on the motivations behind somebody’s behaviors– a focus on the why, rather than the what. Only when we understand the root cause of a maladaptive response can we begin to treat it.
Psychotherapist Vicky Kelly talks a lot about these same ideas in her TEDTalk, The Paradox of Trauma-Informed Care. The following video explains the science behind trauma-informed care, as well as why it’s so crucial for those affected by childhood trauma.
Still interested? See the article below.
But how can we help?
It’s simple: increased awareness about the need for trauma-informed care is the best way in which to help those affected by childhood trauma. So pledge your support to organizations that work towards these goals! Whether it’s with a simple donation or volunteer hours, anything and everything helps. Here are some organizations that are dedicated to helping children affected by trauma, as well as increasing visibility for trauma-informed care:
Do you need me to do anything else?
Yes! In the comments below, please answer these two questions:
- How could you help improve the status of trauma-informed care in your local community?
- How could you be more trauma-informed in your everyday life?
What about a works cited page?
I can’t get anything past you, can I? Follow this link to visit my works cited page.