Dear Dr. Michelle:
I was wondering if you could help me to better understand how early childhood trauma would affect a person’s behavior. Have you seen any correlations of certain forms of trauma and anger in early adolescence?
I am glad you are asking questions about the effect of early childhood trauma on behaviors as teens, which could also be extended to the effect on adults. Often, people do not realize how their childhood trauma experience is contributing to their current problems. I hope other readers will benefit from your inquiry so that understanding and healing may begin.
Through research we have learned that chronic childhood trauma – trauma occurring persistently over a longer period of time during the early years - can actually change the brain and therefore how a child, and later a teen or adult, perceives and responds to one’s environment, and how that person thinks, feels and behaves.
When a child is exposed to trauma, their brain changes in part to help cope with the experience. As a result, the child can develop negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that are protective measures against an ongoing emotional, mental, or physical threat. Even if the traumatic event or threat has been removed, the brain is still wired to perceive and experience it as ever present; hence, any negative behavior that was developed can also continue.
Feelings and negative behaviors resulting from trauma are just symptoms, or a way of coping. In order to help change the feelings and behavior, the underlying trauma needs to be understood and processed in the right way. Research has shown that our brains can change and be rewired to heal from early childhood trauma through time, patience and the right treatment from a trained therapist.
Regarding your question about the correlation between anger and experiencing trauma, research has not determined that there is a direct correlation between a specific feeling or behavior and a specific trauma having occurred. Trauma can bring on many different feelings and behaviors, including anger. While a teen’s anger can most certainly be the result of trauma, we have no way of predicting what specifically occurred (or not) without the person reporting their experience directly.
If you are trying to understand why a teen could be angry and you suspect they have experienced trauma, this could certainly be the case. However, if they are not reporting a traumatic experience, you will want to understand all the possibilities and life experiences that might also be impacting their feelings and behavior. Just because a teen is angry does not indicate they have/have not experienced trauma. Adolescence brings with it many changes and heightened emotions, which can often include anger.
The key to understanding trauma is to understand that it is not a one-size-fits-all experience. People who have experienced trauma will have their own unique perceptions, understanding, and reactions. How trauma effects a person can depend on a variety of factors including their age, developmental stage, specific life circumstances, the actual type of trauma, and whether the trauma was acute, meaning it occurred once like a car accident, or chronic, occurring persistently over a longer period of time, like physical abuse.
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) is a reliable resource to help understand trauma and its effects specifically on children and teens. The following excerpt was taken from their website:
A traumatic event is a frightening, dangerous, or violent event that poses a threat to a child’s life or bodily integrity. Witnessing a traumatic event that threatens life or physical security of a loved one can also be traumatic. Traumatic events may include:
- physical, sexual, or psychological abuse and neglect
- natural and technological disasters or terrorism
- family or community violence
- sudden or violent loss of a loved one
- substance use disorder (personal or familial)
- refugee and war experiences (including torture)
- serious accidents or life-threatening illness
- military family-related stressors (e.g., deployment, parental loss or injury)
Traumatic reactions can include a variety of responses, such as intense and ongoing emotional upset, depressive symptoms or anxiety, behavioral changes, difficulties with self-regulation, problems relating to others or forming attachments, regression or loss of previously acquired skills, attention and academic difficulties, nightmares, difficulty sleeping and eating, and physical symptoms, such as aches and pains. Older children may use drugs or alcohol, behave in risky ways, or engage in unhealthy sexual activity.
There are two specific evidence-based treatments that can help heal the effects of trauma for children, teens and adults. One is called EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) which is an intervention that targets the way the brain processes the trauma, but does so without necessarily talking directly about the trauma. This a great approach when early childhood trauma occurred, and a person cannot or does know not how to talk about the traumatic experiences.
The second approach is TF-CBT (Trauma-Focused, Cognitive Behavior Therapy), which is an approach that deals with the trauma by talking about the experiences directly, which is a great approach when the traumatic event is out in the open and identifiable with direct experiences to discuss. The TF-CBT approach also works intensely with a child’s parent or caregiver and focuses on developing new skills to help cope with trauma symptoms. To find a therapist who is trained to practice either one of these approaches, please refer to my post, How Do I Find A Therapist For My Child.
In addition, the books referenced below can help you understand trauma and its effects on children and teens, as well as provide caregivers with specific ways to help.
- Trauma-Proofing Your Kids: A Parents' Guide for Instilling Confidence, Joy and Resilience; By Peter Levine and Maggie Kline.
- Trauma Through a Child's Eyes: Awakening the Ordinary Miracle of Healing; by Peter Levine and Maggie Kline.
Dear Dr. Michelle blog posts are informational in nature. The posts are not meant to take the place of consulting your physician, mental health professional, or other qualified health providers regarding your well-being or the well-being of others. Submitting a question does not establish a client/therapist relationship.
Submit Your Question on mental health and/or family relations to Dr. Michelle K. Murray.