The Impact of Trauma on Brain Function

by | Parenting

The human brain truly is amazing. It is Mother Nature’s original supercomputer! Our brains controls every aspect of human functioning…walking, talking, breathing, thinking, moving…and most of it happens automatically without any input or thought on our part.

The brain is designed to work like an information superhighway. Information travels in and out of processing centers called synapses in a smooth and streamlined and seamless way. Those information carriers are specialized nerve cells called neurons. Neurons gather information from the environment and from the rest of the body, transfers it to the brain for processing, and then sends that information where it needs to go to make the body do what it’s supposed to do. 

The network of channels information moves through are called neural pathways.  The synapses are the junction points between the neurons. They are the transfer stations, or control centers. Their job is to relay the information that comes to them to the next appropriate neuron for processing and transmission.

Kids’ brains are like sponges

The brain begins forming very, very early and grows at an incredible pace. In fact, it begins forming within three weeks of conception! The physical structures of the brain that last throughout one’s life are in place by seven weeks. During the prenatal period, there are times that close to 250,000 neurons are added to the brain every single minute.

Young brains, especially little kids’ brains, are like sponges. They soak up everything around them, both for better and for worse. During the early years, children learn at a tremendously fast pace. The neural pathways that are laid during this time become the foundation for learning and thinking for the rest of their life.

The time between conception and about three years old is absolutely critical for proper brain development. Positive experiences during this time can have a huge impact on a child’s ability to learn and their chances for achievement and success and even happiness and fulfilling relationships throughout the rest of their life.

Young brains are susceptible to damage

Because they’re growing so quickly and our experiences have so much potential to affect our brain development, young brains are also very susceptible to damage. Children are especially sensitive and vulnerable to the negative experiences that happened to them. The younger they are when those things happen, the greater the risk there is for long-term damage to occur.

Remember, what goes in is what gets hardwired. Unfortunately, when a child experiences trauma, it significantly changes the way that wiring process and outcome. Early trauma (especially things like abuse, neglect, abandonment, alcohol and drug exposure, or removal or incarceration of a parent) that happens during this critical development period has is significant and lifelong impact on how our kids function. Instead of progressing information in a neat and tidy way, the wiring becomes kind of a tangled mess. Some connections are there, others are missing, others end up in the wrong place, and much of it end up quite mixed up.

Kids who have experienced trauma don’t think the same way we do!

Kids whose who have experienced significant trauma simply don’t think the same way we do. They don’t perceive the world the same way we do. They don’t understand things the same way we do. They often don’t even have any frame of reference to understand very simple and very common things that make perfect sense to us.

This altered brain wiring will show up in their behavior, their relationships, and their ability to attach to anyone. It will also affect language skills, belief systems, their ability to learn and to use information. And of course, all of that crazy and often outlandish stuff that we see them doing…I promise makes absolutely perfect sense to them.

Parts of the brain most affected by trauma

There are two parts of the brain that are particularly affected by trauma. One is the front lobe (or prefrontal cortex) and the other is the limbic system. The prefrontal lobe is that largest section of the brain in the front above the eyes, and the limbic system is the middle part of the brain that’s represented in pink.

The Limbic System:  This area is often referred to as the reptilian or primitive part of the brain because it’s one of the first parts to form. It’s also known as the feeling or survival center of the brain. This system is a set of interconnected brain structures that all have their own unique functions. They’re all related because of anatomy and because of how they’re wired together, but each part does its own job. All the players in the limbic system, including the amygdala, hippocampus, thalamus, hypothalamus, and basal ganglia  are responsible for governing emotional responsiveness, memory formation and storage, controlling the endocrine system, and sensory input. They are also very connected to the front lobe of the brain.
Prefrontal Cortex:  The front lobe is known as the thinking center of the brain. It controls logic, reasoning, judgment, impulse control, emotional expression, the ability to understand social cues, problem solving, personality, attention management, communication, voluntary movement, and a whole lot more. It has a very big job to do! It is also one of the most easily damaged parts of the brain, both by injury and by substance exposure, especially alcohol. Even in a healthy, normal functioning brain, it is also the last part of the brain to fully mature. Even under ideal circumstances, the front lobe doesn’t fully mature until a person is in their mid-twenties. Ever wondered why young male drivers are so expensive to insure? This is why!

What does trauma really do to the brain?

Let’s talk first about the impact on the limbic system. In a nutshell, the whole system goes into overdrive and become stuck in the “always on” position. In other words, it becomes very hypersensitive.

One of the most noticeable things is a distorted fight or flight response. The fight or flight response is our body’s natural warning system. It senses danger, puts us in overdrive, and then we calm down when we realized nothing’s there.

Well, that isn’t the case for our kids. Their system gets stuck in emergency mode where everything looks and feels like an emergency them. In real life, it looks like extreme hypervigilance or always scanning their environment to make sure that they’re safe. Or, depending on how they perceive the threat, they might also have a tendency to flop and freeze or to panic or give up when things are even just a little bit hard.

Trauma also creates fractured and intrusive memories. When trauma is too overwhelming to fully process, the memories surrounding it don’t get properly stored or processed. They end up becoming kind of like shards of glass in the brain that aren’t subject to normal recall and processing. Trauma memories are rarely ever complete, but they’re still terrifying to the person experiencing them. There is also little or no ability to control them, stop them, or even make sense of them and a lot of cases.

Trauma also creates hyperactive responses to sensory input. You’ve probably noticed that most of our kids are very easily overstimulated. They don’t have the ability to process all of the sensory information coming in. In order to cope with it, kids will often respond with extremes on either end of the behavior spectrum. Some kids are very, very sensory seeking and cannot get enough input. Others are sensory avoidant and have little or no tolerance for any type of sensory input.

The final impact is the impaired endocrine function, otherwise known as hormone production. These hormones are necessary for regulating growth, metabolism, sexual development and function. Depending on what messages are being sent…and remember that broken messages are being sent through a broken system…we might see over or under production in any or all of these areas.

Now let’s look at how trauma affects the front lobe of the brain. In short, it stunts or shuts down all of its functions. Remember, this is the thinking center of the brain that’s normally slow to develop anyway. When trauma happens, it slows down that process even more and then shoots holes through it.  Because of the circumstances that our kids were once in, it is quite common for them to also have missed developmental steps and milestones that are necessary for correct progress and processing.

Remember what I said about kids having double the number of synapse of an adult? Well, the greater number of synapse means a greater number of connections and the greater the chance for miswiring and misfiring. Especially if a child was in a prolonged or intense traumatic environment, that trauma is what ends up getting hardwired into their brain instead of the positive flows of information that we expect.

Kids who’ve experienced trauma are also very sensitive to change and stress. They need a much longer response and processing time in order to understand what’s even going on. As that front lobe of the brain shuts down response, we often see poor logic, reasoning, judgment, impulse control, and problem solving abilities. This is especially true if there was prenatal alcohol exposure.

Most kids who have experienced trauma also have an impaired ability to process, understand, or regulate emotions. This is why a kid can go from 0 to 120 in the blink of an eye. They don’t understand their own emotions. They don’t understand other people’s emotions, they don’t readily understand or pick up on social cues either, and they have precious little ability to regulate any of it. In fact, they often have no clue how they’re “supposed to be” acting.

Many kids also have an impaired ability to manage attention. ADHD and sensory processing symptoms and even diagnoses are fairly common among children who have experienced trauma. Especially when it comes to ADHD, it is important to remember that that is only one piece of the puzzle. It’s also the one that most doctors seem to know the most about, too. However, treating it alone, either with medication or behavior modification doesn’t work very well, if at all. You’ve got to get the whole picture in mix and you’ve got to treat all parts of that picture!

It’s not about the kids!

As we look at all this stuff, and as we live with the realities of all this stuff, it is so important to remember this is not about our kids. They didn’t ask for what happened to them. They didn’t deserve what happened to them. It’s about brain injury that’s caused by trauma and is made worse if there is substance exposure involved. They aren’t doing what they do to purposely torment you. Our kids are just trying to survive in a world that doesn’t make sense to them and the doesn’t understand them.

They are also not without hope.

Brains can be rebuilt. They can be rewired, new neural pathways can be built, and brain function can improve. This isn’t just wishful thinking or blind hope. It’s neuroscience!

There is a very real thing called neuroplasticity. That is the ability of the brain to form and reorganize synaptic connections, especially in response to learning or to experiences following injury…and trauma is an injury. The brain is truly an amazing organ and it has the ability to adapt. The earlier that intervention can happen, the easier it is to rewire things, but it can still happen at any age, especially if the person is willing to work at it.

Want to learn more about this stuff?

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I’m Diana....wife, mom to 3 awesome (but also very challenging) kids, and a certified professional parent and family coach. I have a passion for helping hurting parents of extremely challenging kids find their way out of darkness and chaos and learn to live again. Many parents I work with have children affected by developmental trauma and struggle with issues such as RAD, PTSD, OCD, ODD, mood disorders, FASD, ADHD, learning disabilities, and other forms of mental illness. This journey doesn't have to destroy you. I found my way out and would love to help you do the same.

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