Have you ever heard the adage that 90 percent of the brain is developed by age 5? When you think about all the academic schooling and high-level engagement you receive after this age, this may seem like it’s a bit overblown.
“Really?” You may think, “My brain as a kindergartener was so close to where it is now?”
But it’s true. At birth, a baby’s brain is a quarter of the size of the average adult brain. During that first year of life, it doubles. It then grows to about 90 percent by age 5. Early brain development has a lasting impact on how a child perceives the world and succeeds in life.
Trauma during the first 3 to 5 years can adversely affect children by impacting brain development and dysregulating emotions. Here’s what you should know about how trauma can alter brain development in young children.
Understanding Trauma and Brain Development
During those first five years, children are developing in all aspects: physically, intellectually, socially, and emotionally. The person they will become is being shaped by those life experiences.
When they have positive interactions with caregivers, family members, and other individuals in their communities, this helps to develop their social-emotional health positively (Chen, Miller, Kobor, & Cole, 2011). Unfortunately, when a child experiences any of the 10 ACEs — abuse, neglect, household dysfunction, incarcerated relative, etc. — then this could negatively affect their development and weaken their brain’s progression.
For example, the hippocampus, the region of the brain associated with learning, is smaller in individuals who report having early childhood trauma. Additionally, the brain’s emotional reaction center (the amygdala) shows increased reactivity if the individual experienced trauma in infancy and early childhood.
There’s no debating whether trauma induces changes in the brain. Some of these changes can be seen immediately and others will play out over time. In your life (or in the lives of those closest to you), you may see the immediate impact of trauma through changes like difficulty with attention and focus, learning disabilities, sleep disturbances, and impaired social skills (Nemeroff, 2016).
Minimizing Trauma Exposure to Support Brain Development
There is a strong link between trauma exposure and mental and behavioral health issues. For this reason, it’s pertinent to prevent and minimize trauma exposure in all humans (especially children) whenever possible.
Beyond the trauma-induced changes listed above, some disorders can occur due to trauma’s impact on brain development. These disorders include post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and substance use disorder.
So, how should primary caregivers work to mitigate trauma exposure for children? The top priority is ensuring that children feel safe and cared for. When children are in an environment where they feel either unsafe or threatened, their brains shift into survival mode. Survival mode makes it difficult (if not impossible) for them to learn and build essential connections that will allow them to thrive and live successful lives.
But what does a “safe” and “non-threatening” environment look like? Many adults wish to provide this for their children, but they may not have had this environment modeled for them while growing up. Here are protective factors that you can use to shield the children in your life from the impact of trauma according to the National Association of School Psychologists.
The child must have…
- The reliable presence of a positive and considerate caregiver
- The understanding that they are loved, supported, and cared for by multiple adults in their community
- Professional support (for both themselves and their family)
- Peer support and positive social relationships
- Effective coping and problem-solving skills
- The ability to express themselves and seek support when needed
- High self-esteem and self-confidence
- Connections with prosocial institutions
- An internal sense of control
Protecting children (particularly those before the age of 5) from childhood trauma is essential. When trauma occurs before the age of 5, it aligns with crucial years of brain development, and this can affect them for the rest of their lives. When in doubt, seek to eliminate any potential ACEs from a child’s life, create a safe environment, and form a secure attachment with them as their primary caregiver.
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Derek Clark is an inspiring conference keynote speaker on childhood trauma, ACEs, child welfare and foster care. If you are seeking to train your staff on trauma-related topics, Derek Clark has extensive experiential knowledge in the field and provides inspiring keynote speeches based on personal life experiences and research.