How does trauma affect childhood development?

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.

Infographic created to share information about what adverse childhood experiences are, how prevalent they are and their impact. Credit to the Robert Wood Johnson federation, visit to learn more. 

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. 

Trauma Informed Care and Why It Matters

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: 

IN SAN DIEGO: The California Center of Excellence for Trauma-Informed Care, The Chadwick Center, The California Trauma Centered Care Academy

IN THE UNITED STATES: The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, The Trauma Informed Care Project.

Do you need me to do anything else?

Yes! In the comments below, please answer these two questions:

  1. How could you help improve the status of trauma-informed care in your local community? 
  2. 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. 


Share this project
  1. April 25, 2020 by Annie Manassee

    WOW! This is a super interesting topic! I didn’t really realize how the two were connected. I really liked how you had some background information and then tips and information on how we can help. I also really loved the infographic and especially the Ted Talk! I LOVE Ted Talks and I think they are super interesting, it is a super cool resource and I loved how you included it in your presentation. The organization of the site is always very neat and super easy to follow. Great job!

  2. April 25, 2020 by Madison

    Hi Sierra! I really love your topic! I myself am very interested in forensic psychology, so learning more about ace’s and hearing from the forensic psychologist you interviewed was very informative for me. In my community, specifically school, there’s this assumption that everyone leads similar lives just because someone doesn’t publicly say that they’ve been through a trauma in their life, so I think that by informing my community of ace’s, this assumption would (hopefully) disappear. In my own everyday life, I would want to know someone more before judging them for a certain behavior. Thank you for including a lot of different resources, good job!

  3. April 25, 2020 by Hamza

    Hi Sierra! I really enjoyed going through your page. I found your topic very interesting. Personally, I don’t have a lot of knowledge in psychology, so thank you for including some great resources. I think this is a very important question to answer since it is a problem that many people face today. Good luck and keep up the good work!

  4. April 25, 2020 by Renee

    This is super informative and well researched, I also enjoyed the resources provided.

  5. April 26, 2020 by Andrea

    Hi Sierra! Awesome job with this project! You really dove deep with this topic. I’m now motivated to help organizations that deal with childhood trauma awareness in my local community and do my part in this!

  6. April 26, 2020 by Lara

    Hi Sierra! I loved your project; it was very informative! I think that I could change my community be informing it about ace’s. I think that it’s something people don’t know a lot about, so I could make a presentation about it and show it to my school or find a speaker to come. I think I could change my personal life by not rushing to conclusions about people and keep an open mind about what they may have gone through in their personal lives that might have affected them.

  7. April 27, 2020 by Conner


    I loved this page. There were some great tag lines that drew me in and I loved the works-cited comment.

    How could you help improve the status of trauma-informed care in your local community?
    1) I can apply to those organizations listed above, which I feel the need to after reading your article. 2) I can help improve the status by raising awareness and spreading your page, just like you said.
    How could you be more trauma-informed in your everyday life?
    Reading more articles like this would do a great job at that. I also can follow your highly detailed list of sources and read up on them (which I’m doing now).

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