Impact of Trauma on Development: Brain

So far we have identified what trauma and ACEs are, along with their prevalence and impact, we are going to dig into the effects that trauma has on development. If you haven’t checked out these posts yet, please do. They will provide a good foundation for this and upcoming posts.

In the next three posts we will be discussing how trauma affects the brain, biology, body, beliefs and behavior.

To begin this discussion, I suggest watching “Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs): Impact on brain, body and behavior” ( Feel free to stop at 3:52.

Iceberg image of the impacts of trauma


Early trauma can have lasting impacts on development, specifically triggering delays in social competence, dysfunctional coping behaviors, and brain chemistry alteration (Tello, 2017). The image to the left is a great illustration of what trauma changes even if we don’t see it. Trauma affects the brain, biology, body, beliefs and behavior (Purvis, Cross, & Lyons Sunshine, 2007). These components all work as one system. We are going to address each of these effects of trauma. First, we are going to begin with the brain and then move onto biology, body, beliefs and finally behavior.

Brain Development

To understand how trauma affects the brain, it is important to understand the brain and how it develops. The human brain, as described by Purvis, Cross and Wendy Lyons Sunshine, authors of The Connected Child, is a miracle of engineering. It is the body’s control center; it controls everything from regulating our heart beat to remembering where we parked our car. It is billions of nerve cells working together to help keep us safe, help us learn, and help us interact with the world around us.

It develops from the bottom to the top, back to the front (NCTSN, 2020). At birth the lower brain is firmly wired. It is responsible for keeping us alive, addressing safety, and helping us react in emergencies. As the brain grows, it builds connections between brain cells in more complex ways that sets the foundation for higher-level skills to develop in the upper brain.

The upper brain is responsible for emotional regulation, understanding self and others, logical thinking, focus, motivation, and adaptability (Siegel & Bryson, 2011). These skills help us learn, do well in school and in life.

Building Brains

Our brains are built by experiences that we have early in life, positive and negative. When we have good experiences, such as positive interactions with a caregiver who meets our needs, a good foundation is built to support future brain development. When we have negative experiences, like relational trauma and toxic stress, the foundation of brain development is weakened. This can cause problems with self-regulation, logical processing, and basic human interaction (Siegel & Bryson, 2011).

Before we get too far into the effects of relational trauma on brain development, let’s look at brain architecture. Please watch “Brain Architecture-Upstairs/Downstairs Brain” before moving on to the next post in this series.

For more information on how to understand brain development check out Brain Architecture-Hand Model of the Brain


Posted: December 1, 2023

Category: 4-H & Youth, Clubs & Volunteers
Tags: #Supporting Youth, 4H

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