How childhood trauma affects child brain development

Last updated: 31 Mar 2021
Introduction

How do childhood experiences affect brain development?

Our brains develop from before birth and into adulthood (Siegel and Bryson, 2012). But there are key ‘sensitive periods’ during early childhood and adolescence where children and young people’s brains are more affected by positive or negative experiences (Shonkoff et al, 2008).

What happens in a child or young person’s life during these periods can have a significant effect on their brain development.

Positive experiences throughout childhood help to build healthy brains, while experiencing childhood trauma and abuse can harm a child’s brain development (Shonkoff et al, 2015).

But our brains always have the potential to change and grow. It’s never too late to give a child or young person positive brain building experiences.

Having caring relationships and access to support services can reduce the harmful effects of negative experiences and help a child’s brain develop in a healthy way (Shonkoff et al, 2015).

> Find out why the bond between a child and their caregivers is important

> Find out more about the adolescent brain in our How safe are our children? report for 2020

How we use metaphors to explain brain development

We want to create a shared and simple language around child brain development that can be used by all professionals, parents, carers and children.

Sharing the Brain Story uses six key metaphors, developed by the Harvard Center on the Developing Child, the Alberta Family Wellness Initiative and the FrameWorks Institute.

These metaphors can be used to improve understanding of child development and give positive brain building experiences to children who have experienced trauma.

On this page you’ll find information about each of the six metaphors and tips on how to use them in your work with children and families. We also have a summary booklet you can download to learn more about each of the metaphors and access further reading.

Download the booklet (PDF)

 

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Brain architecture

Brain architecture: how children’s brains develop

The first Sharing the Brain Story metaphor describes how the development of children’s brains is like the development and construction of a house.

Early experiences build the foundations of our brains. Like a house is built step-by-step – first laying the foundations, then creating the rooms and wiring the electrical system – our brains are built in a similar way.

As good quality materials help build a strong house, positive experiences during childhood help build healthy brains.

Although it’s never too late for the brain to benefit from positive experiences, early experiences build the foundations of brain architecture. A strong brain foundation increases the chances of healthy learning later in life (Shonkoff et al, 2007).

Negative experiences such as abuse and neglect can affect the brain’s architecture by increasing stress-related disorders including:

  • mental health problems
  • drug abuse
  • diabetes and cardiovascular disease

(Shonkoff et al, 2014).

Building brain architecture

Like improving or rebuilding the architecture of a house – refurbishing rooms, strengthening foundations – the brain can also be improved and rebuilt following childhood trauma through an active process of maintenance and care from supportive, trusted adults.

Brain architecture can be built throughout childhood, adolescence and even into adulthood (Shonkoff et al, 2008).

The remaining five metaphors - serve and return, air traffic control, toxic stress, overloaded, tipping the scales - will help you give parents and carers the tools to build strong brain architecture in children and young people.

> Register for our face-to-face training to better understand how to foster healthy brain development in children

> Read more about how you can use the brain architecture metaphor in our Sharing the Brain Story booklet (PDF)

Serve and return

Serve and return: the importance of interaction

The serve and return metaphor from Sharing the Brain Story looks at adult-child relationships by comparing interactions between a child and adult to rallies in a tennis match.

From the ages of 0 to 5, children naturally start interacting with adults through babbling, gesturing and facial expressions. This develops vital language, cognitive and social skills.

Interactions between a child and an adult is like playing a game of tennis. When adults ‘return’ the child’s ‘serve’ with a positive response, a ‘rally’ is created.

Just as good rallies between tennis players develop their athletic abilities, good rallies between children and adults strengthen children’s developing brain architecture, improve their cognitive skills and develop resilience (Shonkoff et al, 2004; Shonkoff et al, 2015).

When adults do not respond to a child’s serve or if children spend a long time on passive activity – such as watching TV – this can break the rally and interrupt development. For example, children learn language, more effectively face-to-face with a teacher or caregiver than by watching TV or a video (Shonkoff et al, 2018).

Improving interaction with children

Sensitive and responsive adult-child relationships help build children’s cognitive skills and brain architecture. Research shows a clear link between social and emotional development and intellectual growth (Shonkoff, Boyce and McEwen, 2009).

> Discover how sensitive, responsive parenting can help to build bonds between children and their caregivers

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> Download our free Look, Say, Sing, Play resources

To increase serve and return interactions, you can:

  • focus on interactive, face-to-face activity, such as talking, singing and playing
  • respond to and build on physical and verbal cues: if they babble, babble back; if they play with toys, play with them
  • allow the child to ‘serve’ – follow their focus and return their serve with support and encouragement
  • maintain eye contact when interacting with the child – this helps to build a nurturing, secure relationship
  • positively reinforce children’s vocalisations: children repeat behaviours when they are praised, which helps shape their babbles into words (Crowley, 2017).

> Learn how to build strong brain architecture through serve and return interactions in our face-to-face training

> Get more information on how you can use the serve and return metaphor in our Sharing the Brain Story booklet (PDF)

Air traffic control

Air traffic control: managing and ordering tasks

This Sharing the Brain Story metaphor compares how children manage mental processes to how an air traffic controller manages aeroplanes in an airport. 

Every day, we manage various demands on our attention, from paying attention and controlling impulses, to managing emotions and prioritising tasks (Shonkoff et al, 2011).

With practice and the right support, children learn to organise and control the tasks in their mental headspace, like an air traffic controller organises and lands aeroplanes in a busy airport (Shonkoff et al, 2011).

Executive functioning skills

The air traffic control system in a child’s brain is also known as ‘executive function’: the system that manages social and cognitive skills. Children depend on these emerging executive function skills as they learn to read and write, develop arithmetic skills and interact with peers (Shonkoff et al, 2011).

Although executive function skills can be improved at any time during and after childhood, negative experiences such as trauma and abuse, can hinder the brain’s cognitive development (Diamond, 2013). This can weaken the child’s air traffic control system and may lead to:

  • reduced impulse control
  • weakened working memory and attention skills
  • disruptive behaviour

(Shonkoff et al, 2011).

Just as an air traffic controller can learn to manage arriving and departing flights, children can learn to manage their mental processes through practice and support.

Building executive function skills

Executive function skills develop throughout childhood, adolescence and into adulthood (Shonkoff et al, 2011). It’s important to give children opportunities to develop these skills through experiences appropriate to their age and ability.

You can help children learn air traffic control skills in various ways.

  • Set a good example through your own actions: children can see adults performing tasks and model themselves on the adult’s behaviour. This is called observational learning (Crowley, 2017).
  • Engage in playful serve and return interactions: social play is important to the development of executive function skills (Shonkoff et al, 2011).
  • Talk to children about the ‘planes’ flying around their mind. Discuss how a trusted adult could help them land or look after some of these planes if they are feeling stressed or overwhelmed.
  • Help children foster decision making and cognitive skills within playful situations appropriate to their age and ability: encourage the child to make choices and ‘direct their own activities with decreasing adult supervision over time’ (Shonkoff et al, 2011, p.6).

> Take our training course to gain knowledge of building strong executive function skills and air traffic control systems

> Explore how you can use the air traffic control metaphor in our Sharing the Brain Story booklet (PDF)

Stress

Toxic stress: the effects of stress on child development

Everyone experiences stress, and learning how to cope with stresses is an important part of child brain development (Shonkoff et al, 2014).

Some stress can be ‘positive’, such as solving problems or preparing for an exam. With adult or peer support, these experiences can help children develop coping and concentration skills that will help in later life.

Other stresses can be ‘tolerable’. For example, children are usually able to cope with bereavement if they have the right ‘buffers’ or support from parents, carers, friends and family.

But if children are exposed to prolonged or repeated traumatic experiences, such as child abuse and neglect, this can cause ‘toxic’ or ‘harmful’ stress, where they start to feel more stressed more often and for longer periods. This can disrupt the building of healthy brain architecture (Shonkoff et al, 2014).

This can affect children’s physical and cognitive development, including:

  • a weakened immune system
  • problems with memory and learning
  • a reduced ability to control one’s moods or emotions
  • slower information processing

(Crowley, 2017; Shonkoff et al, 2014).

Reducing toxic or harmful stress

The effects of harmful stress on a child’s brain and body can be reduced with long-term, consistent help and support (Shonkoff et al, 2014).

The parts of the brain responsible for dealing with stress are particularly malleable during early childhood. Childhood outcomes can be improved through positive changes, such as:

  • community-based interventions
  • increased adult-child interaction
  • supportive relationships.

(Franke, 2014; Shonkoff et al, 2014).

You can help reduce harmful stress in various ways.

  • Soothe and care for children when they are distressed – this helps their brains develop healthier ways to manage stress (Crowley, 2017).
  • Interact with young children through serve and return, for example by listening and responding to their concerns. This helps build brain architecture and stress management systems (Center on the Developing Child, 2013).
  • Help ‘buffer’ the effects of tolerable stresses by offering safe, reliable and responsive support to children and young people.
  • Help parents and carers reduce the level of stress their child is exposed to, by giving them support to manage any challenges their family is experiencing.

> Take our face-to-face training where you'll find out more about toxic stress and how it can be reduced

> Read more about how you can use the stress metaphor in our Sharing the Brain Story booklet (PDF)

Overloaded

Overloaded: the effects of parental stress on children

This Sharing the Brain Story metaphor compares the process of lorries carrying large loads to parents and carers being overloaded with challenges.

When a lorry carries too much weight, it can be overloaded to the point of breaking down. When parents are experiencing challenges like poverty or lack of support, the weight of these problems can overload their mental and emotional capacity to take care of their children’s needs.

Challenges are often out of a parent or carer’s control, such as:

  • violence or feeling unsafe in the community
  • financial insecurity
  • lack of community support
  • losing a job
  • a relationship ending.

Just as we can lighten an overloaded lorry’s load by bringing in other lorries or moving some things by train, we can lighten parents’ and carers’ loads by providing them with appropriate support. This can help improve their capacity to care for their children (Kendall-Taylor and Stanley, 2018).

> Find out more about early help for families and children

Recognising when parents need help

Some overloaded parents may be reluctant to ask for help for a number of reasons. For example, they might be worried their child will be removed from their care (National Commission on Domestic and Sexual Violence and Multiple Disadvantage, 2019).

This means that it’s important for professionals to recognise the load that parents and carers might be carrying, provide appropriate support and work with families to reduce unnecessary weight and strain.

There are various ways that you can do this.

  • Start talking to parents and carers about what support they need as soon as problems are identified.
  • Take time to understand a parent or carer’s position. Sometimes services designed to help might be overwhelming for already overloaded parents.
  • Encourage parents and carers to seek out support from their community and family members or guide them to support directly. Interventions which strengthen community resources can help manage children’s toxic stress response (Franke, 2014).

> Learn about the science behind the effects of stress and how you can tackle parental overloading by taking our training

> See a breakdown of how you can use the overloaded metaphor in our Sharing the Brain Story booklet (PDF)

Tipping the scales

Tipping the scales: outweighing adverse childhood experiences

The final Sharing the Brain Story metaphor uses the concept of scales to explain how to achieve long-term positive brain building environments.

Child brain development is like a set of scales. On one side of the scales there are positive experiences and on the other, negative experiences.

Over time, if the positive experiences outweigh negative ones, the scales tip towards more positive long-term outcomes for the child. We want to help all children’s scales tip towards the positive.

All parents, carers, family, friends or those who work with children can help tip the scales positively.

(Shonkoff et al, 2015).

Tipping the scales towards positive outcomes

By using each of the six metaphors, separately and together, you can help parents, carers and communities understand how to build a healthy environment in which children’s brains can develop.

This is particularly important between the ages of 0 to 5 and during adolescence. Due to the speed of growth, children’s brains are at their most adaptable during these ‘sensitive’ periods of development – so it’s beneficial to stack children and young people’s scales with as much support as possible to help build their resilience.

(Shonkoff et al, 2015).

By sharing the brain story through these six metaphors, all the adults around a child can learn how to help create positive brain building environments and experiences. These include:

  • building strong brain architecture through serve and return interactions
  • helping children to develop their air traffic control skills
  • helping parents and carers avoid becoming overloaded and support them in maintaining a stable, low-stress environment within a framework of supportive and committed adult-child relationships.

> For more information on all our metaphors and advice for helping healthy child brain development, take our face-to-face training

> Learn more about how you can use the tipping the scales metaphor in our Sharing the Brain Story booklet (PDF)

References and resources

References 

Center on the Developing Child (2013) Innovating in early head start: can reducing toxic stress improve outcomes for young children? [Accessed 16/03/2021].

Crowley, Kevin (2017) Child development: a practical introduction. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Diamond, A (2013) Executive functions Annual Review of Psychology, 64: 135-168.

Franke H.A (2014) Toxic stress: effects, prevention and treatment. Children, 1(3): 390–402.

Kendall-Taylor, N and Stanley, K (2018) Seeing context through metaphor: using communications research to bring a social determinants perspective to public thinking about child abuse and neglect. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 15(1): 8-14.

National Commission on Domestic and Sexual Violence and Multiple Disadvantage (2019) Breaking down the barriers (PDF). [s.l.]: National Commission on Domestic and Sexual Violence and Multiple Disadvantage.

Siegel, D. J. and Bryson, T. P. (2012) The whole-brain child 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your child's developing mind, survive everyday parenting struggles, and help your family thrive. London: Robinson.

Shonkoff, J.P. et al (2004) Young children develop in an environment of relationships (PDF). Cambridge: Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University.

Shonkoff, J.P. et al (2008) The timing and quality of early experiences combine to shape brain architecture: working paper 5 (PDF). Cambridge: Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University.

Shonkoff, J.P., Boyce, W.T. and McEwen, B.S. (2009) Neuroscience, molecular biology, and the childhood roots of health disparities: building a new framework for health promotion and disease prevention, Journal of the American Medical Association, 301 (21), 2252-2259.

Shonkoff, J.P. et al (2011) Building the brain’s “air traffic control” system: how early experiences shape the development of executive function: working paper 11 (PDF). Cambridge: Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University.

Shonkoff, J.P. et al (2014), Excessive stress disrupts the architecture of the developing brain: working paper 3 (PDF). Cambridge: Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University.

Shonkoff, J.P. et al (2015) Supportive relationships and active skill-building strengthen the foundations of resilience: working paper 13 (PDF). Cambridge: Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University.

Shonkoff, J.P. et al (2018) Understanding motivation: building the brain architecture that supports learning, health, and community participation: working paper 14 (PDF). Cambridge: Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University.

Childline

If a child or young person needs confidential help and advice, direct them to Childline. Calls to 0800 1111 are free and children can also contact Childline online or read about dealing with stress on the Childline website. You can also download or order Childline posters and wallet cards.

Training

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Further reading

For further reading about child brain development, search the NSPCC library catalogue using the keyword "brain" and "child development".

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