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How Does Trauma Affect The Brain In Children

What Is Trauma

Trauma is a deeply distressing or disturbing experience, often resulting from exposure to an event or series of events that involve actual or perceived threats to an individual’s physical or emotional well-being and can overwhelm a person’s ability to cope.

Different types of trauma can have different effects on the brain​1​, with developmental trauma being particularly influential in altering brain structure and impacting a child’s brain development.

adult pointing at brain imaging

Developmental Trauma

Developmental trauma, also called complex trauma, is an early childhood trauma that often involves chronic, repetitive, and severely adverse experiences during the formative years. These childhood experiences can have a profound and long-lasting impact on child development because the brain is highly vulnerable during these critical stages.​2​

Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) include child abuse, neglect, witness to domestic violence, severe accidents, natural disasters, community violence, bullying, terminal illnesses, and war.

This emotional trauma can significantly alter the brain’s structure and normal functioning, with far-reaching consequences for an individual’s emotional, cognitive, behavioral, and physical well-being. The alterations in brain areas can also lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms or other mental health issues.

Effects of Trauma On Brain Structure, Function, and Neurochemistry

Amygdala and hippocampus

Exposure to trauma can lead to changes in the amygdala and hippocampus, two regions of the brain responsible for emotional regulation, survival instincts, learning, and emotional memory.

The amygdala is one of the brain areas vital to processing emotions such as fear and anger. It activates the body’s survival mode, the fight, flight, or freeze response when an acute threat is detected.

When the trauma response is chronic and repetitive, the amygdala becomes overactive. The brain is constantly on high alert for threats, leading to a heightened stress response and increased anxiety. 

The hippocampus, responsible for memory formation and retrieval, may experience volume loss and abnormal function, such as intrusive thoughts, nightmares, or difficulty recalling memory and learning.​3​

Prefrontal cortex

The prefrontal cortex is the brain region responsible for executive functions such as decision-making, impulse control, and emotional regulation through controlling the amygdala.

Developmental trauma can lead to underdevelopment or dysfunction in this area, resulting in difficulties with impulse control, planning, and decision-making. 

It also contributes to emotional dysregulation due to a reduced ability to inhibit the overactive amygdala, making it difficult for the individual to manage their emotions and maintain emotional stability.​4​

Stress hormone levels

Chronic stress and trauma exposure during early childhood can result in long-term dysregulation of stress hormone levels, including cortisol and norepinephrine.

This hormonal imbalance can lead to a persistent state of heightened stress, contributing to anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues.

High cortisol levels can also negatively impact the immune system, making the individual more susceptible to physical illnesses.​5​

Neurotransmitter imbalances

Developmental trauma can also impact the balance of neurotransmitters in the brain system, such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. These neurotransmitters are critical in regulating mood, motivation, and reward. 

Imbalances in brain chemistry can contribute to various mental health conditions, including depression and anxiety.​6​

Also See: 8 Signs Of Childhood Trauma In Adults

Effects of Trauma On Child Development

Traumatized children often display the following negative effects due to the changes in their brain functions.

Emotional dysregulation

The amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex are part of the neural circuitry of stress that handles stress and fear response.

When the amygdala is hyperactive and the prefrontal cortex, which can regulate it, is impaired, this emotional reactivity resembles a runaway car with malfunctioning brakes.

As a result, children with trauma often have difficulties regulating emotions. They are more prone to mood swings, emotional outbursts, or difficulty coping with stress and adversity.​7​

Mental health conditions

Neurotransmitter imbalances and a diminished capacity to regulate emotions put traumatized children at a higher risk of developing mental disorders. 

Some children may develop posttraumatic stress disorder, exhibiting symptoms such as intrusive thoughts, nightmares, flashbacks of trauma memory, avoidance of traumatic reminders, dissociation, panic attacks, and increased arousal.​8​

Others may experience anxiety and depression, manifesting as persistent worry, sadness, irritability, withdrawal from social situations, and eating disorders.​9​

Externalizing behavior

Victimized children who don’t have healthy coping mechanisms often display externalizing behavior such as impulsivity, aggression, self-injury, and oppositional behavior, making it difficult for them to engage in positive social interactions and adhere to societal norms.​10​

The effects of stress on the brain impact a child’s ability to understand social cues, interact with peers, and engage in age-appropriate play. Over time, this can lead to social isolation and difficulties in forming friendships.

Academic and cognitive difficulties

Children with complex trauma issues may face challenges with memory, learning, planning, organization, and executive functions, adversely affecting their academic performance and daily functioning. 

Difficulties in these cognitive areas can hinder their ability to process information, retain knowledge, and engage in problem-solving or decision-making tasks.​11​

Attachment Issues

Trauma issues in children can make it difficult for them to form secure attachments with their caregivers, and they may find it difficult to trust others. In some cases, the caregivers themselves might be the source of the attachment trauma, further complicating the child’s ability to form healthy relationships and trust.

This lack of trust and secure attachment can shape their perception of relationships and personal safety. 

These children may face ongoing challenges in establishing and maintaining healthy relationships, even in adulthood. They might struggle with interpersonal communication, emotional intimacy, and conflict resolution, leading to a pattern of unstable relationships.​12​

Check Out:
How to Heal from Childhood Trauma
How to Help Children Heal from Childhood Trauma


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Updated on May 9th, 2023 by Pamela Li

Pamela Li is an author, Founder, and Editor-in-Chief of Parenting For Brain. Her educational background is in Electrical Engineering (MS, Stanford University) and Business Management (MBA, Harvard University). Learn more


    * All information on is for educational purposes only. Parenting For Brain does not provide medical advice. If you suspect medical problems or need professional advice, please consult a physician. *