Trauma is Worse for Younger Children

This YouTube video emphasizes how the younger the child who experiences trauma, the more damaging the traumatic experience.

a boy, looking distraught, sitting on the stairsRecently I attended an event at United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey introducing Bruce Perry’s Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics [NMT] to a group of clinicians interested in attending the Child Trauma Academy’s training to become certified in NMT. Psychiatrist Liz Kuh shared a YouTube video that featured Dr. Perry explaining the impact of trauma on the developing brains of children entitled First Impressions: Exposure to Violence and a Child’s Developing Brain. []]

I was so taken by this video that I thought I would highlight some of the key points made by Dr. Perry and other experts with an emphasis on how the younger the child has more damaging traumatic experiences. The video also points out how damaging just observing domestic violence can be, even when the children are not the actual victims of that violence.

Kate SpadeIn the video, Dr. Linda Chamberlain describes a time when she witnessed the aftermath of a horrific domestic violence incident that three children observed. She describes how the older boy, who looks to be about nine or 10 and the six-year-old girl behaved: the boy was dissociative, and the girl was hypervigilant. It turns out that while these two were severely impacted by observing domestic violence, it was the six-month-old baby’s symptoms that were more dramatic four years later. This demonstrates just how powerful the impact of trauma can be on a very young child; it was the youngest of these three children who was the most profoundly impacted by observing her parents engaging in domestic violence.

Dr. Perry states the following: “Your brain’s earliest experiences, although you have no conscious memory of this part of your childhood… literally become the building blocks for your whole life.”

One amazing truth I’ve learned from Dr. Perry over the years that he includes in this video is the following: “Unlike other organs, the brain is undeveloped at birth and it is waiting for experiences to shape how it will develop”.

Picture of a head scan with brain waves running through it.Here is the incredible point of this video, and a key understanding for all parents and caregivers to appreciate. Dr. Perry notes “The amazing thing about the human brain is that the younger you are, the more sponge-like your brain is, which is the reason that children in three years can learn language, can learn to walk and do all kinds of incredible things. But the very same biological sponginess that allows us to rapidly acquire language is also the same sponginess that makes young children more vulnerable to trauma than older children.”

Dr. Perry goes on to share the following: “The tragic reality of children growing up in domestic violence is that they end up with mental health problems at a rate higher than children who are actually the direct victims of physical abuse. “.

While this video emphasized the impact of witnessing domestic violence as a form of trauma, the same principles are true for whatever type of trauma a child experiences: the earlier a child experiences trauma, the more damaging it is to that child’s brain.

Some of the recommendations from Dr. Perry and the other experts in this video:

  • Children need to see their parents deal with stressful situations in an appropriate manner.
  • Children need to learn ways to manage their anger and maintain self-control even when they are highly stressed.
  • Children need to learn to not resort to violence when they are stressed.
  • Parents need to invite children to talk about their feelings – including feelings associated with high stress – like anger and fear, and have those feelings be appreciated and validated by their parents.
  • Children need to receive the critical message that it is not their fault when others become angry or act in unhealthy ways.
  • There is a profound difference teachers and other adults can make by understanding a child’s needs and feelings and also modeling what healthy family interactions involve.

A human brain made with hands, different hands are wrapped together to form a brain

Dr. Perry ends the video by sharing the following: “The most important thing that parents need to understand is that the brain of their child will become exactly what the child was exposed to. If you want your child to be kind, then you have to be kind to your child. If you want your child to be good at self-regulation and not lose their temper, you have to not lose your temper. And that’s the beauty of the human brain. It is a mirror to the child’s developmental experience.”

Invitation to Reflect:

  1. How does this information resonate with what you believe is true about the impact of trauma on children? Were you surprised to discover that it is the youngest of children who are the most impacted by trauma?
  2. How can you apply this information in your life? Can you see why it is so important for you as an adult to learn how to manage stress in your life in healthy ways?
  3. How can we all become advocates for sharing this information with parents and caregivers so they are more aware and inspired to promote health in their child’s developing brain?

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Lakeside Global Institute