Trauma and the Brain

Growing up and being obedient wasn’t an option in our household.  We obeyed because it was expected.  My parent’s demanded obedience and respect because they desired to raise children that respected authority and to raise children that would one day be great contributors to society.  I grew up in a home where you obeyed or consequences followed.  However, I also grew up in comfort and security.  I knew that I was loved.  My needs were always met and I never feared going without food, water, love or nurturing.  As I left adolescence in the rear-view mirror and progressed into adulthood I realized my parents had disciplined us out of love.  I had determined that structure and discipline would be the route in which we would rear our children.

Child rearing has since appeared much differently than how I was raised or how I had envisioned raising my own children.  I vividly remember the day our son was placed in our home.  I remember the shrilling screams that would come from him, most frequently at night.  Unrestrained screams, flailing and arched backs.  Hitting, kicking and the best limp noodle act I’d ever witnessed from a toddler.  I was for sure a distraught neighbor would come knocking on our door out of concern.   For six months my husband and I went through demanding a more socially acceptable behavior from our son.  Ignoring unwanted behaviors, practicing time outs, the removal of toys and a myriad of other tactical ways to train up obedience.  We assumed that because our son had been placed in our home a such a young age that trauma wasn’t a factor for him.  We assumed that because he couldn’t vividly remember or articulate his experiences that they did not make an impact on his life or development.  Oh how gravely we were mistaken.  As I type out these memories tears stream down my face.  For six months we didn’t work to heal our sons brain from trauma but in reality, probably added to his stress and trauma.  Without sharing details of his story you can assume neglect, confusion and fear were part of his daily life prior to coming into our care.  Things he had seen and witnessed many of us will never do so in a lifetime.  It wasn’t until the Spring of 2015 we learned about Trust Based Relational Intervention parenting.  We attending the Empowered to Connect conference by Show Hope and believe that it has saved the life of our son and our family.  We have continued to attend this conference over the last four years and will continue to do so for the rest of our lives.

Trauma and the brain.  In a nutshell, this was the most revolutionary and informative piece of information that changed our parenting.  Did you know the most imperative years for hard-wiring of the brain happen between 0 and 12 months of age?  In fact, the brain nearly doubles in size within the first year of life.  A child that has routinely had needs met; food, touch, nurturing, protection and love will begin to blossom.  The brain grows (literally) neural connections and infants learn to trust, how to self-regulate and self-soothe.  However, when trauma is experienced in a young child’s life,  the brain becomes wired with excessive levels of cortisol (the fight or flight hormone).  When secreted at inappropriate times, and at much higher levels than normal, the brain is actually physiologically changed.  There may even be structural changes occurring that are irreversible.  Below I have included a brain scan from two different toddlers, both at the age of three .  After viewing this image, the nurse within me found research article after research article proving this to be true.  The image on the left is that of a child that grew up much like those of us reading this.  The brain on the right is that of a child who has experienced moderate to significant amounts of early childhood trauma.  A child that has experienced trauma has to work hundreds of times harder than that of a child who has not experience trauma in order to self-regulate.  Often their bodies still rest in a “fight or flight” mode due to the excessive amounts of cortisol surging through their bodies.  Therefore, putting the lower part of the brain in control.  When the lower portion of the brain is in control seemingly menial tasks or situations can become explosive situations.


The CT scan on the left shows a normal child's brain, the one on the right is the brain of a child who has been the victim of emotional trauma.

p.c. Bruce Perry/The Child Trauma Academy


So how, or why is this applicable to you if you have not parented a child from a hard place?  Because more than likely, if you’re reading this,  you either know someone who is parenting a child with trauma, you desire to adopt or foster yourself… or you’re seeking to understand why the Rivera house doesn’t crack down on unwanted behaviors.  You’re wondering why we offer re-do’s.  You’re probably wondering why lots of encouragement and praise is extended for acts that should just simply be obeyed.  Why we offer choices instead of demanding an action.  The reason?  We’re working to re-wire that brain.  We’re working to bring healing to that brain on the right.  We’re working to establish trust before we punitively correct.  Because a child that has experienced trauma is incapable of functioning like that of the child on the left.

A few weeks ago my son was playing with some friends at the park.  Another child was building something in the sand and my son went over and walked through his creation.  The other child became very angry, understandably, and began to yell.  As a mom, it would be the expectation that I give my son a time out or a consequence for playing unfairly.  Instead, we correct the behavior by saying, “It seems that you’re feeling angry.  Is there a reason that you knocked over a friends sand castle?”  We are EMPOWERING him to make a better choice.  Sometimes unknown things cause trauma  triggers and send the body into fight or flight mode.  It’s so hard see and understand that but it often manifests in an undesired behavior.  So we always try to see the need behind the behavior.  After empowering our kiddo with a better choice we then try to CONNECT with them.  By connecting with them we are rewiring the brain and establishing trust.  And finally, we correct.  We give the opportunity for a re-do.  Grace for the act done that wasn’t kind or desired.  At the end of the empower, connect and correct phases we have built trust, educated, shown grace and allowed our kiddo to feel proud instead of core shame.  If you’re rolling your eyes at what you just read, it’s okay, I’ll extend you some grace.  Because prior to being informed about childhood trauma and behaviors I rolled my eyes too.  I thought it sounded like a millennial cop out of firm parenting.  But the evidence doesn’t lie.  The research is profound and so are the results we’ve experience in our home.


My husband and I will ALWAYS allow other adults that have an established relationship with our children to correct them.  We feel that it teaches them to respect and abide in authority.  We do however, strongly and unapologetically ask those in our community to do some homework on trauma and the brain.  To always seek to understand the need behind the behavior…not to just jump to punitive action or condemnation.  We’ve found that children with a history of trauma often experience a lot of core shame.  That deep down within them they feel that they are bad or not good enough.  Just the other day our son said, “But Daddy sometimes I have a mean brain that thinks mean things.”  We assured him that he did not have a mean brain or a mean heart.  That we all have mean feelings sometimes but with the help of Jesus we don’t live under the guilt or fear of condemnation.


Trauma is a funny thing.  It’s difficult to identify and a beast to bring about change and restoration to those it has grabbed a hold of.  So, as an adoptive momma and a foster momma I’d urge you to do a little research.  Buy into the TBRI with us and watch little lives transform as they begin to trust in the relationships around them and believe in themselves!  What a gift of restoration to behold.



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