Developmental trauma is caused by ongoing neglect and abuse over a period of time by a parent or caregiver, leading the child to an overwhelming experience of threat. That means the child may feel like they are always in danger, because at home they often were.
How does trauma impact children’s brains?
Over the last few decades scientists have learnt a lot more about the science of the brain, which is called neuroscience. They have particularly looked into developmental trauma and its negative impact on children’s brains. Developmental trauma is caused by ongoing neglect and abuse over a period of time by a parent or caregiver, leading the child to an overwhelming experience of threat. That means the child may feel like they are always in danger, because at home they often were.
Children who enter foster care have often experienced very unsafe, unpredictable environments leading to developmental trauma. Due to these experiences they may not have developed a secure and healthy attachment to their parents. You can read more about the importance of attachment to children and the way it impacts on the rest of their lives in a previous post.
Developmental trauma is different to experiencing one traumatic incident and it always impacts brain development. It trains the brain to focus all its energy just on surviving and that leaves no energy for thriving. The actual make-up of the brain is affected by developmental trauma, and this changes how the child’s body responds to stress and managing emotions. Repeated experiences of harm and abuse fine-tune the child’s system to a state of constant alarm and readiness to fly into action the second they feel danger. It means they will be less able to control or regulate their emotional responses. A child who has grown to always expect bad things to happen can feel almost everything like a big, scary threat and will react as if it is.
The experience of being removed into foster care is also traumatic, through the loss of everything the child is familiar with – home, school, relationships with siblings, grandparents and other significant adults – regardless of how unhealthy their home situation may have been. Children entering care may no longer see any of the usual people or places they have known in their life, except at visits with their family. This adds to the trauma they have already experienced, like the layers in an onion.
Providing trauma-informed foster care is based on being aware of these significant difficulties and losses, and that children who have experienced developmental trauma need carers with a high level of resilience. This adult resilience is necessary in order to persevere in building trusting relationships with children who have been harmed by those they should have been able to trust the most.
When children are at their hardest to love, that is when they need it the most!
In our next post, we will explore if children’s brains can heal from this sort of early life trauma.