How Does Trauma Affect the Brain of a Child?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "What Happened to You?" by Bruce Perry and Oprah Winfrey. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How does trauma affect the brain of a child? Can childhood trauma impact brain development?

Childhood trauma can have serious detrimental effects on the developing brain. If you think of the brain as a growing city, imagine trying to build structures on top of a damaged foundation. Eventually, the foundation may crack.

Here’s how trauma affects the developing brain.

Trauma’s Impact on the Developing Brain

While experiencing trauma at any stage of life can impact our well-being and mental health, in their book What Happened to You?, Perry and Winfrey explain that childhood trauma has especially severe and long-lasting effects. This is because so much of our brain development happens during the first few years of life. As a result, our childhood experiences are foundational to our worldview, personality, and behavior.

(Shortform note: Scientists disagree on whether our worldview, personality, and behavior depend more on nature (the genetic material in our DNA) or nurture (our childhood experiences), as Perry and Winfrey suggest. However, recent research suggests that personality comes from the interplay between your genes and your environment. You’re born with a certain temperament—for example, you may be quiet or loud, timid or outgoing. But your environment and upbringing also help determine your personality traits and can even change your basic temperament.)

How does trauma affect the brain? Well, when you’re born, Perry explains, your brain isn’t fully developed. As you grow up, it grows with you. It rapidly forms new synapses—connections between brain cells, or neurons. These synapses make up complex chains, called neural networks, that send information to each other through electrical signals. As this happens, you begin to use new areas of the brain that control language, rational thought, and motor skills.

(Shortform note: Research confirms Perry’s claim that the brain grows rapidly in the first few years of a child’s life. Brain size doubles in the first year alone, and the number of neural networks skyrockets. Recent estimates suggest that as infants and toddlers, we develop one million new synapses every second.)

However, when a child experiences trauma, it can disrupt the brain’s normal development. Think of the adult brain as a city—a complex system of interwoven parts. The early years of childhood development are like the ground that the city is built on. If it is sturdy ground, the city will be structurally sound. But if it is unstable or swampy, the city will develop problems: Its buildings and roads might begin to collapse. If it experiences a severe event like an earthquake, it’ll be more susceptible to damage.

Similarly, if a child experiences trauma, the brain’s foundation will be weaker. Perry and Winfrey explain that as the child grows up and the brain grows in complexity, this weak foundation can cause problems. For example, children who experience trauma often struggle with speech, motor-control issues, and problem-solving skills.

How to Encourage Healthy Brain Development

Perry and Winfrey mention that when children experience love and care, their brains develop in healthy ways. But what does “love and care” look like in practice? What are some concrete ways that parents can encourage healthy brain development and avoid the issues the authors describe?

As a parent, there are four key areas of brain development to keep in mind when raising an infant. These areas are: motor skills (including jumping, balancing, and fine motor skills like drawing); speech and language; cognitive skills (such as problem-solving and counting); and social skills (including the ability to connect with others). 

Ideally, parents should show love and care by helping the child develop all four of these areas through different activities. For example, talking and reading to your child helps her begin to learn language; playing games such as peek-a-boo can help develop her cognitive and social skills; and singing songs that incorporate actions—such as “If You’re Happy and You Know It, Clap Your Hands”—can help her develop motor and language skills.
How Does Trauma Affect the Brain of a Child?

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Here's what you'll find in our full What Happened to You? summary:

  • How childhood trauma can have a severe and lasting impact on the brain
  • Why it’s so important to address your trauma
  • How to heal from trauma and develop healthy relationships

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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