Child Development and The Effects of Trauma

Brain research indicates that birth to age three are the most important years in a child’s development. Children learn in many different ways.Each child has his own way of learning—some learn visually, others through touch, taste, and sound.Watch a group of children and you’ll understand at once what this means. One child will sit and listen patiently, another cannot wait to move and count beads. Another wants you to show her the answer over and over.Children also learn in different ways depending on their developmental stage. One thing we know is all children love to learn new things by exploring and discovering. Children love to solve problems during play and in daily activities.

In the first eighteen months after birth, an infant makes miraculous progress. In this relatively short time span, an infant sees her world through her senses. Babies gather information through touch, taste, smell, sight, and sound.To help infants mature and learn, the caregiver should stimulate but not overwhelm them. The overall goal is not to “teach” your baby but to interact and explore her world with her.Older infants are on the move. They take great pleasure in discovering what they can do with their voice, hands, feet, and toes. Soon they practice rolling skills, crawling, walking, and other great physical adventures.Here is what you might expect during the first eighteen months and beyond.

One Month

At one month of age the child can’t support its own head and is awake about one hour in every ten. The child is wholly dependent on its caregiver.

Three Months

By three months of age the child’s hands and feet are fascinating. The child will laugh and coo at them. The child will remain alert for 15 minutes, maybe longer, at a time.

Five Months

At five months the child may be able to roll over and sit with support. He or she can hold toys. At this age the child will babble and is alert for two hours at a time. By this time, the child will eat most baby food. If toys are just out of reach the child will try to reach them.

9 months

The child at nine months will become very busy! He or she will explore everything! By this time, the child should be able to crawl, sit, pull on furniture, grasp objects, and understand simple commands.They begin to be able to enjoy time with other babies and react to their happiness and sadness.

One year old

At the end of their first year, the child may be able to pull myself up and sidestep around furniture. They may begin walking. They make lots of sounds and say “Mama” and “Dada.”

At one year of age they are curious about flowers, ants, grass, stones, bugs, and dirt. They like to get messy, ’cause that’s how they learn. They have fingers want to touch everything. They like to play near others close to my age but not always with them. If walking, please walk at their pace.

12-18 Months

Between the age of twelve to eighteen months, the child will like to eat with a spoon, even if it spills. He or she will explore everything high and low. The child may have temper tantrums because they will have no other way of expressing my feelings or frustrations.They may be fearful and clingy. It is during this time that evening routines become important: music, story, and bath time.The child will like balls, blocks, pull toys, push toys, take apart toys, put together toys, and cuddles. They will say “No” and mean it.

18 months

By eighteen months a child can walk well but still falls allot. They may jump. They say a lot of words, especially the word “mine”—because everything is “mine” to the child.

During the next stage of life, your child is beginning to define himself. The child needs activities that spur his imagination and vocabulary. During the toddler years, children get into everything.

The terrible terrific two’s

At age 2 the child is loving, and quite affectionate, and responsive to others. They will feel sorry or sad when others my age are upset. They may try hard to please you. They don’t need you so close for protection, but please don’t go too far away. The 2 year old may do the exact opposite of what you want and may be rigid, not willing to wait or give in.A 2 year old may even be bossy. “Me” is one of my favorite words. There are fears a two year old has, especially of sounds, separation, moving household objects, or that big dog.

3-5 Years

Three through five years are the preschool years, when the child will be incredibly busy. Cutting, pasting, painting, and singing are all daily activities.The child starts kindergarten around age five, and will begin learning numbers, letters, and simple directions.

A three year old is charged with physical energy. The three year old child will do things on my own terms. With a mind like a sponge, reading and socializing are essential and gets them ready for school.The three year old likes to play pretend a lot and enjoys scribbling on everything. I am full of questions, many of which are “Why?”The child has become fairly reliable about using the potty by this age. Playing and trying new things out are how children of this age learn . He or she will begin to listen more and begins to understand how to solve problems.

4 years old

Four years old is an active stage, running, hopping, jumping, and climbing. The four year old loves to question everything “Why?” and “How?” . He or she is interested in numbers and the world in general.They enjoy playing with my friends and like to be creative with drawings, and recognizes their own pictures to be different from everyone else’s. The four year old is proud that he or she is so BIG now!

Age 5

That brings us to age 5. Finally the child seems to be slowing a little in growth. With good motor control, but still small muscles aren’t as developed a the larger muscles are for activities such as jumping. This age comes with activity levels which are very high and play time has direction. The child will like writing his or her name, drawing pictures, making projects, and going to the library. Much more interested now in doing group activities, and sharing things and expressing feelings.They may prefer quiet time away from the other kids from time to time and be anxious to begin kindergarten.

6 to 8

Six through eight years of age have busy days filled with recess, homework, and tear-jerking fights with their friends. They begin to think and plan ahead. They have a thousand questions. This age group has good and bad days just like adults. Get ready, because it’s only the beginning!A six year old is affectionate and excited over school, willing to go eagerly most of the time. The 6 year old is self-centered and can be quite demanding. He or she thinks he is a big kid now and can be impatient, wanting demands to be met NOW. At this age the child begins to want to be around older children more than with younger ones. They will often have one close friend, and sometimes will exclude a third child.

7 Years Old

When the child reaches age 7, he is more quiet and sensitive to others than at six. Sometimes at this age, he or she tends to be mean to others of the same age and younger. which might include acting out to hurt their feelings to a 7 year old tends to be more polite and agreeable to adult suggestions and I conscious of his or her schoolwork and is beginning to compare his work with others wanting his schoolwork to look “right.”

When he or she makes mistakes, the 7 year old can easily become frustrated.

8 Years

An 8 year olds curiosity and eagerness to explore new things continues to grow. Friends are more important and at this age, the child enjoys playing and being with peers. Recess may be a favorite “subject” in school. The 8 year old may follow you around the house just to find out how you feel and think, especially about him.

The 8 year old child is developing an awareness of adults as individuals and am curious about what they do at work. Around the house or at child care, 8 year olds can be quite helpful.

9 to 11

Children from nine to eleven are like the socks they buy, with a great range of stretch. Some are still “little kids” and others are quite mature. Some are already entering puberty, with body, emotions, and attitude changes during this stage.

Parents need to take these changes into account when they are choosing child care for this age group. These children begin to think logically and like to work on real tasks, such as mowing lawns or baking. They have a lot of natural curiosity about living things and enjoy having pets.

They have lots of energy, and physical activities are important such as sports and group activities. The child will begin to find his taste in clothes, music, and friends. He will want individuality if his choosing, or, a hair cut a certain way. Priorities like school are not as important now as a social life

At this age, girls are often taller and heavier than the boys. Some girls may be beginning to show signs of puberty, and we may be self-conscious about that. They can feel powerful and independent, as they know what to do and how to do it. They want to think independently and want to be independent and will be eager to become an adult.

The pre-teen adolescent years

As children enter adolescence, they to want their independence. Yet they still want to be children and need your guidance.

As your child grows, it’s easier to leave him at home for longer periods of time and also ask him to care for younger children. Trust your instincts and watch your child to make sure you are not placing too much responsibility on him at one time. Talk to him. Keep the door open.

Eleven – Fourteen

Your child is changing so fast—in body, mind, and emotions—that you hardly know him or her anymore. One day they are as responsible and cooperative as an adult; the next day they act more like a six-year-old.

Planning beyond today’s baseball game or slumber party is hard. One minute it’s sunny and the child is enthusiastic. The next minute it’s gloomy and your child is silent. Keep cool. These children are in the midst of a delicate process; they are becoming more self-sufficient.It’s Independence Day for them, as they are more independent than they used to be, but still quite self-conscious. They may think more like an adult, but there’s no simple answer to any thing.

They like to talk about issues in the adult world and think for themselves, and though they may often feel confused, their opinions are very important to them, and they want others to respect them. They seem to be moving away from my family as friends are more important than ever. To make sure they got on and are liked by their friends, so they sometimes act in ways that adults disapprove of.

They still need reasonable rules set by adults. However, they need the adults to be more understanding and cooperative. They want nothing to do with babysitters—in fact, they believe they are mature enough and can often be left alone or even to watch others.

Trauma and the Brain

“The human brain is designed to sense, process, store, perceive, and act on information from the external and the internal environment. All of these complex systems and activities work together for one overarching purpose—survival” (Goldstein, 1995 cited in Perry, et al., 1995).

Neurons are the building blocks of the brain. During development, neurons create networks that link to create systems. These systems are how the brain regulates all functions. Brain functions are organized from the most simple to the most complex. The development of these functions is sequential, meaning prior events impact future development.

A key fact that child welfare professionals, judges, and others who work with child welfare-involved families should know is that there are critical developmental times when neural pathways are being formed that can be significantly altered by traumatic events (Perry, 1995, 2009).

Exposure to chronic, prolonged traumatic experiences has the potential to alter children’s brains, which may cause longer-term effects in areas such as:

  • Attachment: Trouble with relationships, boundaries, empathy, and social isolation
  • Physical Health: Impaired sensorimotor development, coordination problems, increased medical problems, and somatic symptoms
  • Emotional Regulation: Difficulty identifying or labeling feelings and communicating needs
  • Dissociation: Altered states of consciousness, amnesia, impaired memory
  • Cognitive Ability: Problems with focus, learning, processing new information, language development, planning and orientation to time and space
  • Self-Concept: Lack of consistent sense of self, body image issues, low self-esteem,shame and guilt
  • Behavioral Control: Difficulty controlling impulses, oppositional behavior, aggression, disrupted sleep and eating patterns, trauma re-enactment

Source: Cook, et al, 2005

The Brain Development in Infancy

Brain development in infancy and early childhood lays the foundation for all future development. Neural pathways form at great speed and depend on the repetition of experiences.

Experiences teach the brain what to expect and how to respond.

When experiences are traumatic, the pathways getting the most use are those in response to the trauma; this reduces the formation of other pathways needed for adaptive behavior.

Trauma in early childhood can result in disrupted attachment, cognitive delays, and impaired emotional regulation.Also, the overdevelopment of certain pathways and the underdevelopment of others can lead to impairment later in life (Perry, 1995).

By age three, the brain is almost 80% of its adult size;

By age five it is 90%.Although this creates a sense of urgency regarding intervention, it is also important to know that the brain has the most plasticity in infancy and early childhood, meaning there is the most opportunity for change.This is both the reason that prolonged trauma in early childhood can be so devastating, but also a window of opportunity for interventions that can alter the brain in positive ways (CWIG, 2011).

Children and Teens

Brain development continues in the school-age years, but more slowly.During this stage neural pathways are pruned or eliminated to increase efficiency. In addition, the brain coats neural pathways to protect and strengthen them (Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000).This process allows the school-age child to master more complex skills, including impulse control, managing emotions, and sustaining attention.

Trauma during this (school age to adolescence) stage of development can have significant impact on learning, social relationships, and school success (NCTSN, 2008).

The impact of trauma at this age also depends on the onset. If trauma continues into the school-age years from early childhood, the impact is greater on overall functioning.There is some evidence that trauma that begins during the school-age years will have a different impact than trauma that begins in early childhood.

Specifically, school-age onset seems to result in more externalizing behaviors (acting out) whereas early childhood onset results in more internalizing behaviors (withdrawal, depression, self-blame) (Manly, 2001; Kaplow, 2007).

In adolescence the brain goes through another period of accelerated development.

The pruning of unused pathways increases, similar to early childhood. This process makes the brain more efficient, especially the part of the brain that supports attention, concentration, reasoning, and advanced thinking.Trauma during adolescence disrupts both the development of this part of the brain and the strengthening of the systems that allow this part of the brain to effectively communicate with other systems. This can lead to increased risk taking, impulsivity, substance abuse, and criminal activity (NCTSN, 2008; Chamberlin, 2009; Wilson, 2011; CWIG, 2009).

Sense of Security

Survivors of childhood trauma need to feel safe and find a sense of security. Children need to feel physically and psychologically safe.

To feel psychologically safe, children need consistency and predictability.

It is important that caregivers provide predictable and consistent rules, environments including routines, clear expectations, consistent feedback, and positive reinforcement.

Caregivers should learn to truly listen to the child. Pay attention to possible triggers, which may be people, places, or things that make the child feel threatened.Increase the caregiver’s awareness of behaviors that are reactions to triggers. It may not always be clear to an outsider what the threat is, but the threat is real to the child who has experienced trauma.

Most importantly, reassure the child that everyone in her life is working to keep her safe. That reassurance, backed with the consistent actions by the caregivers, will, in time, create the trust and sense of security, essential in to the healing process.

Special thanks to the following sources of wonderful information-

How trauma effects brain development

Ages and stages of child development

Want to know more? Read this awesome article for a more scientific explaination of how different parts of the brain and how they are affected by traumatic experience.

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