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The Effects of Traumatic Stress on the Developing Brain

By CLC Staff Social Workers Weida Allen and Rachel Ayoub

9.13.2012- In recent years, many in the helping professions have begun to recognize the significant impact that trauma has on the lives of people, especially young people.  Trauma comes in many forms, but is defined as events occurring outside of the normal human experience.  Trauma occurs when a child experiences an intense event that threatens or causes harm to his or her emotional or physical well-being. When children live through a traumatic experience, they react in both physiological and psychological ways.

A growing body of research has uncovered the pervasive and detrimental effects of traumatic stress on the developing brain. The majority of brain development is completed during the first five years of life, with the most critical development occurring within the first two years. Brain structures responsible for regulating emotion, memory and behavior develop rapidly during the formative years and are very sensitive to damage from the effects of emotional or physical stress, including stress from abuse or neglect. Children who have been exposed to one or more traumatic events over the course of their lives may develop reactions that can affect their daily functioning long after the traumatic events have ended. Be aware of the ways in which traumatic events have impacted the young people in your life, and seek trauma-informed therapy to address issues that persist and continue to impact their daily functioning.

CLC clients have almost certainly experienced trauma in their lives.  CLC volunteer attorneys have a responsibility to attempt to understand the hurdles their clients have faced in the past, are currently facing and will face in the future.  Child clients who have experienced traumatic events and function in a persistent state of fear and may exhibit behavioral challenges such as impulsivity, hyper-vigilance, hyperactivity, withdrawal from reality, depression, sleep difficulties and anxiety.  These behavioral challenges can often be misdiagnosed as various conduct disorders.  Misdiagnosis leads to improper treatment. Because of this, the child client may never get treated for the real problem, which is the trauma.  To become a more effective advocate, volunteer attorneys need to be aware of the trauma their clients have experienced, and how that has shaped who their client is. With that knowledge, CLC volunteer attorneys can help ensure that their clients are receiving the necessary mental health treatments to remedy their true problems.

Additional Resources: http://www.justicepolicy.org/images/upload/10-07_REP_HealingInvisibleWounds_JJ-PS.pdf