How Does Complex Trauma Affect Children and Adolescents?

Topics: Overcoming Challenges

By Whayne Herriford, SCP, SPHR

While we may not always see it or know about it, there are children within each of our communities experiencing trauma. They have been exposed to multiple traumatic events, frequently simultaneous or sequential, within their primary care-giving system.

Prolonged exposure to trauma that is experienced by children typically creates:

  • A world view that is felt as threatening and bewildering
  • A perception that people are unpredictable and cannot be trusted
  • A need to control or manipulate others because of the fear of continued abandonment or abuse

Research into the neurological impact of trauma on children and adolescents has indicated that when in a state of trauma, the human brain slows down the frontal, or “executive functioning,” part of the brain and the sympathetic nervous system takes over. This is the part of the brain that responsible for the body’s fight or flight responses to external threats. Continuous, repeated exposure to significant traumatic experience results in a person constantly being on guard for real or perceived threats from the environment. It is not a conscious, deliberate state of being.

Behaviors associated with sympathetic nervous system activation include

  • A focus on the here and now
  • Impulsivity to ensure quick responses to threats
  • Minimum self-reflection
  • Minimum concern for outcomes

When operating from the sympathetic nervous system, primary behavioral responses are highly likely. This is because the individual will have a tendency to:

  • Perceive that others are attempting to dominate or control them
  • Feel as if others are attempting to restrict their actions
  • Feel that they are required to focus on others’ goals our outcomes and not any of their own
  • Feel as if there is no respect for their status, role or position in the relationship

Over time, prolonged activity of the sympathetic nervous system also results in the perception of threats being very broad, in a quicker and much more impulsive reaction to a perceived threat and in seeking information to confirm their perception of a threat rather than information to contradict it (which occurs when operating from executive functioning.)

Adverse childhood experiences – increased health risks:

Adverse childhood experiences increase health risks.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Credit: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

High experience of trauma has also been linked to increased health risks including obesity, smoking, substance abuse, absenteeism from school or work, diabetes, depression, suicide, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and cardiac events.

Being aware of trauma in your learning communities gives you opportunities to create safe, supportive environments for children, which can, in turn, better support successful futures for our students. Over the next several weeks, I will be sharing more information about the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Assessment and tips for how to create a trauma informed environment.