The brain has many complex systems that work together for the purpose of survival. It is created to perceive, store, process and act on information. The brain is made of neurons and in the process of development they create networks that link together to create systems. The brain regulates all of these functions which are organized from simple to complex. This means that there are critical times in development when neural pathways are being formed that traumatic events can impact this development.
Infancy and early childhood are where all of future development is laid. Experiences teaches the brain on how to respond to things and what to expect. Having traumatic events occur in an early childhood can result in many different issues in development. “Experts say that exposure to violence and trauma can impact young children not just emotionally but also cognitively, causing developmental delays.” Rebecca Harris (2019)
Brain development in the school age years is still developing, but at a slower pace. It is during this stage that neural pathways are eliminated to help the brain work more efficiently. The brain also at this time coats neural pathways to strengthen and protect them. This process is crucial because it empowers the child to master more complex skills. Trauma in children and teens can have a severe impact on school success, social relationships, and learning. In adolescence the brain goes through another stage of increased development. In this stage the unused pathways are increased, and this process makes the brain to be more efficient in concentration, advanced thinking, and reasoning. Some additional complications that happen in adolescent years can lead to criminal activity, substance abuse, impulsivity, and increased risk taking.
Trauma experiences can alter children’s brains and can cause long term effects in development. This can cause children to have issues on developing bonds with teachers and being wary of adults. Many of these children struggle or haven’t been able to develop or create a secure attachment to adults in their lives. At times this can create a feeling of an unsafe environment for the child, leading them to be afraid to receive or ask for help from teachers. This impacts student’s ability to learn and causing a disturbance in education. Students can struggle on paying attention in class because of being distracted by intrusive thoughts about the traumatic event. Exposure to traumatic events and violence can disrupts a child to manage emotions successfully and relate to others around them. This can lead to poor behavior and acting out in a school and classroom setting. Children who are traumatized go through another challenge that they develop which is believing that they are bad and whatever happens to them is their fault. This causes them to think that people aren’t going to treat them well. Traumatized kids often times have a mentality that everyone is out to get them by having hostile thoughts. This can put thoughts into the child that they are a bad kid, so they believe that they won’t do well in school. These negative thoughts towards themselves puts a strain on education and prevents them from fully learning.
Children that go through a traumatizing experience can live in a near constant fight or flight, which causes adrenaline to flow even though there is no real threat present. A student can be triggered by something even though it is non-threatening which they may feel the intense emotions and fear associated with a frightening event. Thus, a student may not be able to contain their reactions or emotions when they are overwhelmed by stress. The traumatic experiences often include anxiety and fear which can alter a child’s brain development. Children of trauma can be unavailable or “offline” for learning due to the symptoms they may experience such as dissociation, flashbacks, and intrusive thoughts. From the over-activated flight, or flight responses in the brains of the traumatized students, the memory centers and learning of the brain are turned down. Normal brain development is affected because of the primary function of a child’s brain is to process fear and protect itself. Due to this, students may become disengaged, forgetful or unable to concentrate. The child of trauma is always in a constant fight for survival which makes this extremely difficult for the child to learn. Having any experience of trauma impairs the ability to learn immediately and over time.
“Traumatic events cause the brain to enter a heightened state of awareness, activating our limbic system and flooding the brain with the stress hormone cortisol. Excess cortisol is toxic to the brain and primarily damages the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. These areas of the brain are directly related to memory and executive functioning respectively, as a result, there becomes an overall decreased ability to process new information, objectively analyze complex data, and engage in memory consolidation.” How Trauma Affects a Student’s Brain (2019)
Students that have experienced trauma can have a hard time with controlling emotions or calming self when stressed. A child can fail to learn how to regulate sadness or fear because of always being faced with stress chemicals that are going through the body or reliving traumatic events. From these emotions it can lead into long-term challenges such as guilt, shame, PTSD, self-hatred, or depression.
How Trauma Impacted My Development
When I was in my early child-hood I experienced several traumatic events where I was physically, sexually and emotionally abused. It really impacted my development more than I even knew at the time. I don’t remember every little detail, but I realized that certain things would trigger me and caused me to breakdown when it wasn’t even a big deal. For example, I remember one time I was in class and we had a substitute teacher and it was someone that I had never met before. We were working on a math worksheet and it was something that we had been learning about all week. I felt unsafe because I was in a room with a man that I had never met till that day. From that small thing of having an unknown substitute I felt so anxious that I couldn’t focus on my work. Even though it was something we were working on previously, it was hard for me to recall how to do the problems. I remember there was a certain problem that I didn’t understand but I was too scared to ask the substitute to help me. I had a rush of emotions and went in full panic mode. I busted into tears and ran out of the room into the bathroom. I crawled into a little ball and started rocking back and forth and felt terrified. One of the teachers came to check on me but it took me a while to calm down and come out of the bathroom. When I was in school, I had a difficult time on focusing and listening to my teachers. I always felt so afraid of everyone and didn’t make very many friends in school. I felt that I had completely shut down and I didn’t know who I was and never felt like myself. I noticed that my education started to go downhill and a big part of it was because there were times that I didn’t understand a concept, but I was terrified to tell my teacher that I didn’t understand. It was really hard for me to talk to adults or people with authority because I feared that I would be hurt, and I didn’t want anyone to know I didn’t understand because I thought that was bad.
Things started to get better the older I got, and a year would go by where I felt that everything was okay. I no longer had any issues with my past, or at least I thought so. I remember when I was thirteen years old, I started to develop a major fear of men. I was so afraid I isolated myself from everyone I knew including friends that I had made recently. I remember that I was even terrified to go out into my front lawn. If anyone that drove past my house that was a man I would run as quickly as possible into my house and started to panic thinking that they were going to come after me if I was outside. I always stayed in my room and felt depressed and all alone. My room was my only safe place and I felt like I couldn’t talk to anyone else. I knew that I shouldn’t be afraid of everyone I see, but I didn’t know how to manage my feelings and how to stop myself from being scared all of the time.
Once I got older, my mom and I talked about the traumatic events and she told me something that really stuck with me. She said that before any of the incidents happened, I was very out- going, bubbly and talkative. After the incidents happened there was something inside of me that changed. I didn’t seem like the same person because I became incredibly shy and reserved. Hearing that made me hate on myself and I became so angry. I hated who I was, but I didn’t know how to change and be the person I felt that I truly was supposed to be.
It was really hard for me to form friendships with the people around me. I always just felt that I had to protect myself and that I could never trust anyone. My mentality was that when you become vulnerable and open up to someone, that’s how you get hurt so it’s better to be distant with other people.
As I got older, I started to form an interest towards boys and knew that I was attracted to them, but I really struggled on having any kind of friendships with boys. I felt super uncomfortable when boys touched me or came near me. I felt a huge rush of anxiety if they ever did. I tried to act as natural as possible but after I would leave where everyone was, I would just cry and cry feeling unsafe. Everyone around me that was my age, starting to go on dates with guys and had a lot of guys they would hang out with. I never had those experiences for me at that time that everyone else did because I was really afraid of boys even though there wasn’t any reason to feel that way.
Things I Did to Heal From Trauma
After several times of the incidents my parents eventually found out about what was going on. They were both very supportive and tried their best to help me in any way that I could with the traumatizing events. My mom took me to a play therapist at a young age seeking for me to get as much help as possible. The first time I went in I almost had a sense of relief and felt safe because now that my mom knew what was going on, I wasn’t going to be hurt. After going the first time though I was terrified. I remember that I was so confused and didn’t understand why I needed to talk to a random lady. I was very reluctant and had a difficult time talking to the therapist. For most of the therapy I did a lot of playing with toys and games. She had me draw pictures of certain things that would analyze how I was feeling which made it much easier because I didn’t have to actually talk much with her. Part of the process of the healing was to help me work through the trauma and help me to rebuild trust with people. “Play therapy facilitates verbalizations and creates the necessary space for a child to work through his/her traumatic events. Through play, a child can learn to trust and respect themselves as well as how to identify and accept their feelings. Children can initiate self-control, how to rake responsibility for self, and learn to be creative and resourceful when confronted with problems. Through this self-direction, children discover how to accept themselves, to make choices, and to be responsible for those choices.” (Paone”,Tina, Maldonado, 2008)
I had a really hard time focusing in school and I fell behind in my education. I was always distracted and never did any of my homework. As I got older it caught up to me and soon before I realized I was far behind my years educationally. My mom could tell that I was having issues with school, but I told her that I was fine and didn’t need help. In 7th grade I had a teacher that I really related to. They shared personally stories and we really connected and felt that I could trust him. I told him my struggles in learning, and he began to help me every day after school. My parents decided to get me a tutor in the summer as well that came every week to help me on filling in those holes that had built up through the years. It was a big struggle and I felt that I was stupid and was really down on myself. When I saw my therapist, she taught me ways on how to be able to focus more in school and how to gain a trust with the people around me, so I wasn’t always afraid. I eventually caught up on my education and was able to understand what was being taught in all of the subjects. Going to therapy and having a tutor help me in my school helped me to know how to prepare myself for college and know how to control my emotions.
My mom took me when I was young, but the therapist informed her that I may need to go back as I got older to continue on helping with the healing process. There was a time that I was in a room with my sister and she got super close to me because she was trying to grab something from behind. For some reason by her getting up close to me I felt violated and cornered off that I pushed her away from me. My sister was left in tears because I shoved her, but I only did that because I was triggered and felt fearful in that moment. After that my mom talked to me and asked why I did that to her. I further explained how I felt and the reasoning for why I pushed her. After that my mom told me that she thought it would be good to go back to the therapist and talk to her about how I was feeling, but I refused to and said that I was fine. Things after that incident were going well and I didn’t have any more issues with anyone, so my mom stopped on suggesting that I go back to the therapist. As I had said before in my early teen years, I suddenly began to be afraid of men and was afraid to go outside. For me it was something that was very annoying, and I honestly hated that I was so afraid of everyone. The problem was that I didn’t know how to overcome it. I realized that it might be a good idea to go back to a therapist and talk with her again about my issues. I went to my mom and started talking with her and confessing that I was afraid to go outside in our front yard. Immediately after my mom had me go back to the therapist. This time since I was older, we didn’t do any kind of playing but I expressed my feelings to her. My therapist had me get a journal and write down all of my feelings about different situations. I would then rate each situation from 1-10 on how anxious or nervous it made me. Each week we would go over every situation and talk about things I can do to help me calm down in those situations. I was in a stage of hypervigilance and had a hard time to realize what really was a threat. The therapist helped me to know what things I should actually be afraid of and situations that I can be relaxed and not have my guard up. Going to the therapist helped me tremendously and now I feel like a I am more of the person I was meant to be. I still do struggle at socializing, expressing myself and emotions at times, but I feel happier than I ever was before. I still use certain techniques that I was given from my therapist to this day and It helps me to live a healthy, happy normal life.