How trauma affects the developing brain?


Trauma significantly reduces a child’s working memory. If you remember my biology lesson a few posts ago – you will remember how my emphasis then was on the different parts of the limbic system and what they were responsible for.

The amygdala is the part of the limbic system that is responsible for releasing cortisole – the stress hormone which gives us out survival instinct to fight, flight or freeze. When the amygdala is engaged in producing cortisole it becomes enlarged and encroaches on the space in the brain designated to the hippocampus. The hippocampus is the part of the limbic system responsible for memories and is the memory sorting centre that stores our long term memories. A child who has or is experiencing trauma will always be on high alert due to the chaotic world they live in and will be in one of two states:

hyperarousal – which means that they appear restless and unable to concentrate;


hypoarousal – which means that the child appears quiet and withdrawn.

In either of these states the child’s ability to learn becomes quite difficult as the enlarged amygdala is forcing the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex offline, due to the constant perceived threat to survival.


What do you think a child who is hyper or hypo-aroused might look like at school?? Do you think that they are the quiet achievers who sit there and finish all of their work before the others?? Do you think they are the class clown who disrupts everyone day in and day out who simply can’t concentrate or comprehend what it is they are supposed to be doing? If you said yes to the latter, then you would be right. This is how trauma cause inequalities in the classroom.

Quite often these children get diagnosed with ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) or ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) or ODD (Oppositional Defiance Disorder) and prescribed medication that quite often only makes their behaviour worse.

What about the child with severe anxiety, who can never go to a birthday party or have a sleep over or the one who mopes around and appears to have no zest for life at an age where they should be bouncing of the walls with excitement and opportunities but they simply can’t find any enjoyment with anything they do. Or the child who is lashing out with extreme acts of violence or being the school bully? Do you think that they are just mean or mentally unstable?? This is how trauma causes inequalities in mental health.

Here is a short youtube clip about behaviour in children

Teachers are starting to be educated and taking on a trauma informed approach and offering support for these children like  a time out corner so when they are feeling overwhelmed that can take themselves away to a quiet corner of the room and read a book to self soothe.

This really is just the tip of the ice-burg in to how trauma affects the developing brain and I have only looked at the issues it has for a child in relation to school and learning and possible mental health consequences.

My next blog I will look at others ways that trauma impacts on the body and what inequalities that causes.

Thanks for reading

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