How childhood trauma affects child brain development

Last updated: 22 Jan 2020
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 malleable, making them more susceptible to positive or negative experiences (Shonkoff et al, 2008).

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

Positive experiences throughout childhood help to build healthy brains. Conversely, childhood trauma and abuse can harm a child’s brain development. However, positive experiences, caring relationships and support services can reduce the harmful effects of negative experiences and help a child’s brain continue to develop in a healthy manner (Shonkoff et al, 2015).

Although it’s beneficial to provide children with positive experiences as early as possible, 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.

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 Science is a trauma-informed approach to child brain development that uses six key metaphors, developed by the Harvard Center on the Developing Child, the Alberta Family Wellness Initiative and the FrameWorks Institute.

The metaphors can be used to improve understanding of child development, foster healthy brain growth and help children who have suffered adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) get back on track.

This page provides detailed information about each of the six metaphors and tips on how to use them in your work with children and families.

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Brain architecture

Brain architecture: how children’s brains develop

The first Sharing the Science metaphor focuses on brain development by comparing a house's construction to the construction of children's brains.

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. 

In the same way as the quality of the materials is important in building a house, the quality of experiences during childhood is important to building children’s brains.

Although the brain benefits from positive experiences into adulthood, it's during childhood that positive experiences build the foundations of brain architecture. A strong brain foundation increases the chances of healthy learning later in life (Shonkoff et al, 2007).

Stressful or traumatic experiences such as abuse and neglect can affect the brain’s architecture in negative ways such as 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
Serve and return

Serve and return: the importance of interaction

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

From the ages of 0 to 5, children naturally initiate interaction 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 engage in prolonged passive activity – such as watching TV – this can break the rally and interrupt the developmental process. Language, for instance, is learnt 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, responsive adult-child relationships help build strong cognitive skills and brain architecture in young children. Research shows a clear link between social and emotional development and intellectual growth (Shonkoff, Boyce and McEwen, 2009).

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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
Air traffic control

Air traffic control: managing and ordering tasks

This Sharing the Science 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).

We aren’t born with the skills to manage these demands but with practice and 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, adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), 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 stimulate healthy development in various ways.

  • Set a good example through your own actions: children can observe 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
Toxic 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 exposure to prolonged or repeated adverse situations, such as child abuse and neglect, can cause ‘toxic stress’: an overactive stress response in children where they start to feel more stressed more often and for longer periods, which 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 stress

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

The sections 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 toxic stress in various ways.

  • Soothe and care for children when they are distressed – this helps children’s brains develop healthy stress management functions (Crowley, 2017).
  • Interact with young children through serve and return rallies, 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.
  • By staying alert to parents and carers who may feel overloaded and helping them manage and alleviate these burdens, professionals can help parents and carers reduce the level of stress their child is exposed to.
> Express your interest in our face-to-face training where you'll find out more about toxic stress and how it can be reduced
Overloaded

Overloaded: the effects of parental stress on children

This Sharing the Science metaphor compares the process of lorries carrying large loads to parents and carers being overloaded with burdens and stresses.

When a lorry carries too much weight, it can be overloaded to the point of breaking down. When parents are burdened with stresses 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.

Burdens 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.

When an especially large burden is placed onto parents or carers who are already overloaded, their mental and emotional health can become overwhelmed. This can affect their ability to care for their child and control the environment in which their child is raised.

The reduced control over their environment may result in children being raised in unpredictable or neglectful environments.

Adverse environments can cause children to experience toxic stress, weakening their brain architecture and negatively affecting their cognitive processes (Shonkoff et al, 2014; Shonkoff et al, 2011).

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’ mental stresses through a range of support services. 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

Reducing stresses and burdens on parents and carers

Some overloaded parents may be reluctant to ask for help. Overloaded mothers who have mental health problems and substance abuse issues, for example, may avoid seeking support for fear of their child being removed from their care due to a perceived inability to parent (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, direct them to appropriate support services and consider how to reduce unnecessary weight and strain.

There are various ways that you can recognise and reduce the burdens and stresses on overloaded parents and carers.

  • Take time to understand a parent or carer’s position. As well as being a source of support, services designed to help may become an extra burden on already overloaded parents.
  • Encourage parents and carers to seek out support from the community and family members or guide them to support directly. This can lighten stresses and offload emotional burdens and interventions which strengthen community resources can be effective in buffering children’s toxic stress response (Franke, 2014).
  • Provide direct support to parents and carers as soon as problems are identified.
> Learn about the science behind the effects of stress and how you can tackle parental overloading by taking our training
Tipping the scales

Tipping the scales: outweighing adverse childhood experiences

The final Sharing the Science metaphor uses the concept of scales to explain how long-term positive brain building environments and experiences can be achieved.

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 malleable 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 science of child brain development through these six metaphors, parents, carers, communities and those working with children 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
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 8/11/2019].

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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.

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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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