A sculptor can take a shapeless piece of clay and over time transform it into something beautiful or useful. Similarly, events in a child’s life sculpt the child, shaping them into who he or she will become as an adult. Traumatic events change a child’s mental shape thereby altering their future.
In 2014 Child Protection Services reported 3.25 million possible cases of child abuse in the United States (Brenner, 2018). Children who are abused or neglected experience trauma, but many times they lack the cognitive abilities to work through the events, missing the opportunity for growth until much later.
Trauma in childhood has been linked with a damaged stress-response system (O’Conner, 2018). This system is comprised of the adrenal glands, which sit above the kidneys and release a steroid hormone – cortisol—when a person goes through a stressful experience. A study found that adults who experienced trauma as children and who attempted to commit suicide later in life had less cortisol in their systems during a stressful event (O’Conner, 2018). The ability or limited ability to release cortisol has been linked to emotional processing, poor mental control and risky behavior, which are all linked to suicide (O’Conner, 2018).
The authors the study state that, “[h]igh levels of trauma in childhood and the associated stress may lead to excessive wear and tear of people’s stress response system that may increase suicide risk later in life” (O’Conner, 2018). In the study, nearly 80% of those who attempted suicide had at least one traumatic event in his or her childhood. In the control group only 20% had experienced childhood trauma (O’Conner, 2018). Those who reported one or more moderate to severe traumatic events in childhood released the least amount of cortisol when stressed.
This increased wear on a child’s stress-response systems can have other negative impacts. Research shows that children who experience significant adversity growing up are at an increased risk of underemployment, under education, mental and physical health problems and substance abuse as adults (Miller, 2018).
Abuse and trauma also influence the type of attachment the child develops as an adult. Adult attachment has three basic categories. The first category is avoidant attachment, where the adult feels that others want to be closer than he or she is comfortable (Fraley, 2010). Second is secure attachment. Here the adult feels confident and comfortable with intimate and close relationships. There is no worry about abandonment or deceit. The last category is anxious-resistant attachment. Here the adult feels insecure about how close someone is, worrying that the intimate partner may not reciprocate feelings of love (Fraley, 2010).
In a study done recently, it was noted that family environments could predict adult attachment styles. It showed that adults who had abusive homes growing up had more insecure attachment (Brenner, 2018). Research also found that physical abuse in childhood is associated with avoidant attachment, whereas childhood neglect is associated with anxious attachment in adults (Brenner, 2018).
These negative styles of attachment are also associated with other negative health outcomes. Anxious attachment can indicate or contribute to depression, anxiety and low self-esteem, especially in adults who experienced abuse as a child.
The trauma doesn’t have to be after a child is born to have an effect. Recent studies show that trauma experienced by a pregnant woman impacts the expected child as well as any children that child will have. These traumatic events can impact the way the child behaves: “[t]here is considerable evidence that exposure to prenatal stress can induce stable changes that influence neurodevelopment, mental health and the risk for psychiatric disorders” (Serpeloni et al, 2017). The study found that violence during pregnancy led to different DNA activity in children, which was passed on to their children (DNA can carry, 2018). The DNA sequence was not altered, but the legibility or activity was changed.
Trauma has many lasting impacts. People providing support should be aware of these lasting effects.
Brenner, G. (2018). Attachment style, adult well-being, and childhood trauma. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/experimentations/201801/attachment-style-adult-well-being-and-childhood-trauma
DNA can carry memories of traumatic stress down the generations. (2018). Retrieved from http://cordis.europa.eu/news/rcn/128740_en.html
Fraley, C. (2010). A brief overview of adult attachment theory and research. University of Illinois.
Miller, K. (2018). What makes some people ‘supernormal’?. Minnesota: MPR
O’Conner, D. (2018). How we discovered the link between childhood trauma, a faulty stress response and suicide risk in later life. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/how-we-discovered-the-link-between-childhood-trauma-a-faulty-stress-response-and-suicide-risk-in-later-life-88838
Serpeloni, F., Radtke, K., De Assis, S. G., Henning, F., Nätt, D., & Elbert, T. (2017). Grandmaternal stress during pregnancy and DNA methylation of the third generation: An epigenome-wide association study. Translational Psychiatry, 7(8) doi:10.1038/tp.2017.153