What Happens to Us, and When It Happens, Matters

Too often, when working with children and families, I hear people say, “Well, at least they were just a little kid when that happened and they don’t remember.” This common misconception about the Impact of childhood trauma on the developing brain can lead to a lack of understanding of how our experiences shape the way we interact with the world – and the people – around us.

Tricia Schutz
Tricia Schutz

We’ve all heard the adage, “Kids are resilient,” and while that is true for many children who have had the necessary positive experiences that develop resiliency, it is also true that children can be vulnerable. Fostering resiliency in children begins in utero and even before conception. Several positive factors, such as the health and safety of biological parents, family/community support, and housing/economic stability can provide an optimal environment for the healthy development of a fetus. As the organization of the brain begins, these positive factors can also strengthen the developing brain’s ability to organize properly, building the foundation for how that baby will experience the world once they are born and as they grow up.

We’ve all heard the adage, “Kids are resilient,” and while that is true for many children who have had positive experiences, it is also true that children can be vulnerable.

The early days, months and years of life are filled with experiences and relationships that help shape how the brain is organized and sets the template for how a child will interact socially, emotionally, behaviorally and cognitively with their family, school and community. When a child’s needs are consistently met by a nurturing, attuned and responsive caregiver, the child learns very quickly that their needs will be met and the world is generally a safe place where adults can be trusted to act in the child’s best interest. However, when a child’s needs are not met, or their needs are met inconsistently, the child’s worldview changes. They may feel as though their needs will not be recognized and attended to or that adults may not always respond to their needs. The child may even feel unsafe in a world that seems unpredictable and sometimes scary.

Children's Faces


Trauma occurs when a person’s ability to cope with an adverse event is overwhelmed and contributes to difficulties in functioning. The impact of this process is profound, especially when the adverse event occurs during key developmental timeframes. The seminal ACE (adverse childhood experiences) study shows how early trauma also can have a serious effect on a person’s physical health in later life and ultimately impact life expectancy.

-Excerpt from Seven Essential Ingredients for implementation of Trauma Informed Care, SaintA.org

Depending on when adverse experiences or a traumatic insult occurs, it can change the organization and functioning of the brain. The same situation that may be mildly stressful for a typically developing child with no adverse experiences, can trigger a flight/fight/freeze response in a child who has been exposed to trauma. If the exposure to intense stress is prolonged, the child can develop a highly sensitized stress response system, which can impair their ability to use all the parts of their brain (their thinking brain) and grow to respond in a fear-based reflexive manner (their doing brain.)

In our Integrated Community Treatment program, we frequently see the Impact of those adverse experiences and trauma. Whether consulting with an early childhood program about an infant who needs physical and occupational therapy due to global neglect and deprivation of gross motor skills; or an elementary student who has a fight response to his teacher who unknowingly crosses his intimacy barrier in class; or a teenager who is struggling to feel connected to her adoptive family because her first two years of life were spent without enough adult caregivers to consistently meet her needs. The direct impact can manifest in many ways.

The indirect impact may take form in the cost of mental health and child welfare services, and sometimes, unfortunately, the criminal justice system. Additionally, the frequent and chronic exposure to the trauma of others can result in secondary and vicarious trauma of those who are close to children that have been traumatized.

When we are able to recognize and acknowledge the Impact of trauma, we can begin to educate others about the importance of our experiences and knowing that what happens to us, and when it happens, can impact us all in many ways.

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One Response to What Happens to Us, and When It Happens, Matters

  1. Pingback: Working Alongside Social Workers – Michelle Sieg

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