Childhood Trauma Part 1 – 101 on Trauma

By: Sharon Burris-Brown, LICSW, NBC-HWC


Childhood Trauma Part 1 – 101 on Trauma

When Mariah Rooney, LICSW, RYT worked as a Fellow at the Trauma Center at JRI in Boston, she saw families and children who had experienced complex trauma.  “Trauma in very young kids can cause tremendous impairment”, Rooney explained.   Trauma can affect development in all aspects: developmental delays, sensory integration issues, dysregulated behavior and emotions, the ability to connect to one’s own body and sense of self as well as to other people.

Explosive episodes, panic and anxiety, depressive symptoms, cognitive delays, executive function difficulties, sensory seeking or avoiding behaviors—these are only some of the manifestations of trauma.


Trauma is a term that has been thrown around.   Simply, trauma can be the result of an incident that threatens the safety, identity, ability to trust and general wellbeing of an individual.  Sometimes traumatic symptoms can occur from a single incident, but many individuals seeking therapy have experienced multiple incidents or long-term trauma—called complex trauma.

ACES-Adverse Childhood Experiences are potentially traumatic situations that have occurred in childhood such as: abuse of all kinds, violence in the home and witnessing violence in one’s community, having a parent(s) who is mentally ill, and/or addicted to substances, growing up in poverty, parental abandonment and having a parent who was incarcerated.

Community discrimination and generational trauma as well as bullying, separation from a primary caregiver and medical trauma were left out of the original list of ACES but can also have profound effects on a child’s wellbeing.

Preverbal trauma occurs before the child is old enough to speak or speak fluently.

PTSD-Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a response to traumatic incidents.  This diagnosis requires that a set of symptoms are present.  Not everyone who has experienced traumatic incidents has PTSD. But anxiety, depression, disordered eating, substance use disorders are very common with individuals who have experienced trauma.

A Very Short Primer on Attachment

Depending on the age and the type, severity and duration of the trauma, attachment to a primary caregiver may be damaged.  Secure attachment enables a child within the relationship of a stable primary caregiver(s) to feel safe.  Needs are met not only for basics: food and shelter, but for touch, sensitive emotional interaction from an in-tune primary caregiver that allows the child to feel seen and to feel loved.

In early childhood, the child needs a trusted caregiver to help him regulate his emotions.  Consider when a baby cries and is picked up and held, for example.  The child learns that his emotional needs will be met and, in turn, is more likely to grow up trusting relationships and to be able to be able to learn how to meet his own needs.

Research, also, shows that the quality of this early bond is important to a child later being able to regulate his own emotions.  When an individual is able to connect to and accept his emotions, he can consciously make decisions to act in socially acceptable ways when feeling a challenging emotion.

When the attachment is not secure, dysregulation of emotions may occur—explosive episodes such as mentioned above are an example of what can happen when a child is dysregulated.

And the child is much more at risk for mental health issues, addictions and may be unable to nurture healthy relationships.

Sensory Challenges 

Deprivation, neglect, complex trauma in very young children rewires the brain and makes it difficult for them to either filter out sensory input or causes damage to the part of the brain that recognizes sensory input.   Holding, rocking, talking, cooing to infants all plays a huge part in developing the part of the brain that integrates sensory experience.

Imagine children with brain deficits for filtering out sensory stimuli being placed in regular classrooms filled with 28 other kids.  Noise, lights, activity can cause intense anxiety and they will be prone to lashing out or may curl up in the corner of the room with their hands over their ears.

Those kids who lash out or cringe in the corner may be performing sensory avoiding behaviors.

And, those children who perform sensory seeking behaviors often appear hyperactive.  They may be the kids who can’t keep their hands to themselves, who are always fidgeting or talking or flinging pencils.  They are seeking sensory stimulation.

“Deep touch, the rhythm of rocking, all play a part in developing the proprioceptive and vestibular systems”, Rooney explains.  The vestibular system is the part of the brain that affects balance and understanding where one’s body is in relationship to others and in space.  A child with those deficits may seem unusually clumsy—perhaps often bumping up against other kids or banging into things.  Damage to the proprioceptive system can cause delays in gross and fine motor skills.

Executive Function

Executive Functioning is an umbrella term that includes a set of tasks that comes from the prefrontal cortex or the rational, command, decision making part of one’s brain.  These skills include, time management, prioritizing, organizing, delaying gratification, decision making, remembering to do and complete tasks.  Complex trauma can also interrupt the development of the pre-frontal cortex.

Normal are kids who forget to do homework or to turn it in from time to time or who forget their gloves at school.  However, depending on age of the child and severity, there may be a fundamental issue that goes beyond what is considered normal for that child’s age and supposed development.  A middle school kid may struggle to remember when to do homework assignments and this is normal.  A 17 year old teen who has a pattern of forgetting homework, losing items, forgets to brush his teeth or to take showers is another matter.

School Difficulties and Cognitive Delays

Traumatized kids are often not set up to learn.  There are too many barriers that get in the way for traumatized brains to take in new information, to store and organize new material.  Trauma can create an in-balance of the parasympathetic nervous system—the part of the brain that helps people calm down after a frightening incident.

Traumatized child live mostly in survival mode where many situations they encounter can potentially continue to re-traumatize them. Rooney explains that when the trauma is re-experienced, the brain’s speech and rational decision-making centers can go off-line.

For kids and families who have experienced adversities, healing needs to begin by connecting to their bodies’ inherent wisdom which helps them connect to and regulate their emotions.  It is key to repair the ability to securely attach to a trusted caregiver as well.  Bruce Perry a psychiatrist who specializes in child-hood trauma and who wrote the powerful book, “The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog” about his experiences working with traumatized kids, says it simply: “regulate, then relate, then reason”.

If you feel like you need the support of a mental health professional, remember that you’re not alone! If you have any questions, please contact us, we’re here to help!



  2. The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog. Perry, Bruce, Szalavitz, Maia. Basic Books.  (2017).
  3. The Trauma Center at JFI.