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Childhood Trauma and the Brain | UK Trauma Council

Childhood Trauma

By ImsatisfyingwithPublished 24 days ago 3 min read

Brain development is much more than a story about biology. From the earliest years, relationships with others play a key role in shaping how our brain grows and develops. Early relationships where there is abuse and neglect have a long-term impact on children. A brain that has adapted to survive in a threatening or unpredictable world may not work so well in an ordinary environment.

This can create what is called latent vulnerability, where early abusive or neglectful experiences with carers put children at greater risk of experiencing mental health problems in the future. For these children, compared to their peers, common experiences like moving to a new school can feel more daunting and stressful. New faces can appear threatening while positive social cues can be missed.

It can be harder to negotiate new social situations and learn to trust new people. Even fun experiences like joining a new sports team can be challenging. Too much focus on potential threat cues can mean missing out on positive social cues, such as a playful nudge, or it causes an overreaction, which leads to an increased risk of conflict and sometimes violence.

These reactions can increase the likelihood of generating new stressful events. It's harder to deal with everyday challenges when you feel unconfident and anxious inside, and harder to build and maintain relationships. Over time, this can mean a child loses friends and the support of adults, and so misses out on opportunities to grow and develop. This social thinning can increase the risk of mental health problems in the future.

Neuroscience research is beginning to shed new light on how vulnerability unfolds over a child's life. All children need care and stimulation from adults who value them and who show them attention and love. These experiences shape a child's brain development. When children face traumatic experiences like abuse and neglect, their brain adapts to help them cope. We know of changes in three different brain systems: the reward, memory, and threat systems.

Experiences of domestic violence or physical abuse can lead to hypervigilance, where the brain reacts more to threat. This might help a child stay safe in an early adverse environment, but it can cause problems in more ordinary environments. Hypervigilance can best be understood as a pattern of adaptation rather than a sign of damage.

Abuse and neglect can also mean a world where a child's basic needs for care and attention are not met. This can shape the brain's reward system, the part of the brain that helps us learn about positive aspects of our environment and motivates our behavior. Over time, the brain's reward system can learn to respond differently to things like positive social cues. Neuroscience studies have also pointed to changes in the autobiographical memory system, our memory of everyday past experiences. Following trauma, negative memories appear to become more salient, which means they become more prominent than positive ones, and everyday memories can also become less detailed.

This is a problem because we need to draw on past experiences to help us deal with new social situations. Neuroscience research is showing how childhood trauma can create latent vulnerability, increasing the risk of later mental health problems like anxiety and depression. This vulnerability is not just located in the child but arises through their relationships.

Helping children who have experienced trauma still requires ordinary boundaries and consequences, but it also requires us to step back, reflect, and see behavior that we find challenging in a different light. A child may simply be doing their best to survive now with brain adaptations from the past. We know a child's brain has the capacity to continue to adapt. For this to happen, they need our help to build and maintain trusted relationships, manage everyday stresses, and prevent new ones from happening. We need to encourage them to try again and believe things can be different. This is far from an easy task and takes time.

Science is helping reframe our understanding of childhood trauma. Seeing children's behavior in a new light can mean we respond differently, but there is much still to learn. Working together, we can develop more effective approaches that promote resilience and recovery. We can help children build trusting relationships and create opportunities for their brains to adapt in new ways.


Understanding the impact of early relationships on brain development is crucial for supporting children who have experienced trauma. By recognizing the adaptations that their brains have made and providing a nurturing environment, we can help these children build resilience and foster positive growth. As science continues to uncover the complexities of brain development, our approaches to care and support must evolve to ensure every child has the opportunity to thrive.

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    ImsatisfyingwithWritten by Imsatisfyingwith

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