When considering the impact that childhood trauma has on development it seems necessary to view the issue from a life course perspective. According to Fink and Galea (2015) traumatic events are ubiquitous, as a majority of people will experience lifetime traumas. To put this into perspective, nine out of 10 people in the United States will experience at least one traumatic episode, however it is more likely that most will experience more. While trauma manifests as a result of accidents that cause physical and/or emotional harm, or through natural disasters, the focus of this paper is on the effects of trauma that results from abuse beginning at an early age and its impact over the life course. Such abuse occurs in a myriad of ways. Nurius, Green, Logan-Green and Borja (2015) report that trauma during the early stage of life may result from neglect, maltreatment, witnessing violence and family dysfunction. Research appears to indicate that adversities experienced during childhood are diverse, thus are co-occurring and cumulative (Nurius et al., 2015).
Population-based studies have shown that childhood trauma is relatively common and is associated with psychological disorders that develop into adolescence and adulthood. As a result, victims of abuse are at increased risk of aggression, anxiety, depression, personality and behavioral disorders, substance abuse and suicide (Nurius et al., 2015). However, symptoms may not begin to manifest until later and may be stated as “percolating” unseen and in response to stressors which are experienced through abusive situations. The stressors that result from abuse are toxic, and when experienced during early life, “sets in motion social and biological chains of
exposures that, as stressors accumulate, can overwhelm individual coping and available resources to support recovery and health (Nurius et al., 2015, p. 3). Young children who are exposed to abuse and trauma are psychologically compromised and their ability to deal with stressors is diminished, thus leading to a state of vulnerability that occurs when moving into other stages of life, and a much higher degree of risk of experiencing behavioral and social difficulties (Nurius et al., 2015). As may be surmised, such difficulties seep into relationships as well as the family system.
Toxic stressors that result from trauma at an early age resulting in lasting changes in how the brain is structured and functions. Both animal and human studies have demonstrated that hormones released as a result of trauma (and stress) disrupt the brain’s developing architecture, for example, receptors located in the hippocampus, amygdala and prefrontal cortex are altered and lead to deficiencies in memory, learning and executive functioning (Shonkoff et al., 2011). While such deficiencies may lead to a range of impairments, it is important to understand how they contribute to impacting relationships and family systems. Childhood trauma leads to cognitive impairments affecting decision-making processes. As a result, there is a likelihood that adolescents and adults will make poor lifestyle choices as a way of coping. They may gravitate towards substance abuse, promiscuity or gambling, and find it difficult to find and maintain supportive relationships and networks of support (Shonkoff et al., 2011). The lasting effects of childhood trauma leads to an uncertain future, and in the event that such victims become parents they are less capable or likely to protect their own children from trauma and abuse. Hence, the trauma that often results from abuse is perpetuated, an intergenerational cycle that results from poor parenting, and the infliction of more trauma and abuse (Shonkoff et al., 2011). While such issues are worrisome enough, the effects of childhood trauma can have lasting physical effects as well.
Neurobiological research has found that the physiological responses to early psychological and emotional traumas are quite similar to those of physical trauma. According to Danese and Van Harmelen (2017), “The biological plausibility of this theory is supported by experimental and observational studies showing that psychological stress can trigger an immune response or, more precisely, an inflammatory response” (p. 1). Specifically, research has shed light on how trauma affects the amygdala and sympathetic nervous system, thus inhibiting physiological response to inflammation (Danese & Van Harmelen, 2017). Inflammation affects the psychopathological makeup by changing the metabolism of neurotransmitters such as glutamate and monoamines. However, from the perspective of physical health, the inflammation that results from trauma may also lead to type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, insulin sensitivity and contribute to the progression of atherosclerosis (Danese & Van Harmelen, 2017). Lastly, chronic health-related issues have manifested in adults who have reported experiencing trauma and/or abuse at an early age, medical issues that tend to affect victims throughout the life course (Greenfield, 2010).
Without effective interventions, the life experiences of many adults who had been victimized by trauma and abuse is troublesome. Childhood trauma and abuse affects both adolescents and adults in various ways; emotionally, behaviorally, socially, psychologically and physically. Symptoms may not be immediately present, they still begin to germinate until potentially manifesting into a range of issues. As a result, early trauma and abuse impacts the trajectory and quality of life. The effects on the brain are tantamount to dysregulation, leading to adverse cognitive, social and relationship issues. Early victims of trauma and abuse may find their own abilities as parents to be wanting, leading to the potential of a cycle of abuse that may perpetuate generationally without intervention. The effects of psychological and emotional abuse and trauma are the same as physical trauma and affects the way in which the body responds to inflammation, also having a lasting, chronic affect on the well-being of childhood victims.