What is Trauma?
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, childhood trauma is defined as:
“The experience of an event by a child that is emotionally painful or distressful, which often results in lasting mental and physical effects.”
The most common causes of childhood trauma include:
- Chaos or dysfunction in the house (such as domestic violence, parent with a mental illness, substance abuse or incarcerated)
- Death of a loved one
- Emotional abuse or neglect
- Physical abuse or neglect
- Separation from a parent or caregiver
- Sexual abuse
- Stress caused by poverty
- Sudden and/or serious medical condition
- Violence (at home, at school, or in the surrounding community)
A person’s reaction could be short-term or long-term, like in the case of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. There is also
, which is trauma of a repetitive or continuous nature. This could include things like abuse, poverty, or hunger. For students, the effects of trauma go far deeper than behavior. People who have suffered emotional trauma can have lapses in their cognitive abilities. They may have trouble focusing on simple tasks. They may lose memory function, or forget how to write or say the alphabet. They may experience unexplained rage or terror. Trauma has real and lasting effects on the brain and in understanding this, we can better understand and help our students.
What is going on in the brain of a student who has experienced Trauma?
Fight or flight + anxiety states
Children who experience trauma can live in a near-constant state of fight or flight, with stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline flowing, even with no real threat present. That means, a student may be triggered by something non-threatening (like a loud noise, or not understanding an assignment) and feel the intense emotions and fear associated with a truly frightening event. Therefore, a student may not be able to control their emotions or reactions when they’re overwhelmed by stress chemicals.
Memory function + learning
With fight or flight responses over-activated in
the brains of students of trauma
, the learning and memory centers of the brain are conversely turned down. When the primary function of a child’s brain is to protect itself and process fear, normal brain development is affected. You might see students become forgetful, disengaged, or unable to concentrate. Over time, the effects can actually permanently alter the brain, making it increasingly difficult for a child of trauma to learn when it’s constantly fighting for survival.
Students who have experienced trauma can have difficulty managing their emotions or self-soothing when stressed. When faced with a consistent flow of stress chemicals coursing through the body or reliving traumatic events, a child can fail to learn how to calm themselves down or regulate sadness or fear. These emotions can manifest into deeper or more long-term mental challenges such as depression, PTSD, self-hatred, guilt, or shame. Or, the emotions can burst outward into rage, anger, trembling, hyperactivity, or mood swings. “Having learned that the world is a dangerous place where even loved ones can’t be trusted to protect you, children are often vigilant and guarded in their interactions with others and are more likely to perceive situations as stressful or dangerous.
After trauma, it can be trying for students to trust their peers and/or adults. If a trauma is experienced in which a caregiver breaks the child’s trust, a child can begin to believe that many or all people are bad and should not be trusted. A student with a trauma history may have difficulty trusting teachers, authority figures or peers. They may also isolate themselves or be drawn into unhealthy romantic relationships.