A few years ago I was sitting in a small circle with a couple of young teenagers and a co-facilitator. I was helping spearhead a brand new program for teens who had been exposed to domestic violence. A boy named Caleb with floppy red hair sat straight across from me. He stared sullenly at the floor. In the couple of hours I had spent around him, I had never seen him act interested in anything or anyone. He barely spoke. He shuffled around begrudgingly and only participated in social interaction when forced to.
I had spoken to his mom earlier that week. She was in the midst of a courageous fight for freedom from a violent abuser. She sat in my office and told me some of their story. She had been abused by Caleb’s father when Caleb was just an infant. She had a second child-a girl- and left their father shortly thereafter. She had some short term relationships during the next few years but nothing solid. When Caleb was 9 she married a man with a teenage daughter of his own.
At first things were okay. But within the first year the man began to batter her. She tried to stay and work it out. She thought things might get better. She wanted a stable home for Caleb and her daughter. But one evening things got worse than they had ever been. Her husband chased her around the kitchen with knife. She fled to the only room in the house that still had a lock on the door-the bathroom.
She told me that Caleb stood in the hallway holding his little sister and watching his stepfather beat on the bathroom door screaming obscenities and threats. Caleb was twelve. He felt like he should do something. But he was torn between protecting his mother and sheltering his sister. In the end he felt helpless to do either.
How does this kind of trauma impact a child? In this article I’m going to provide a simple and at times slightly oversimplified description of the neurological impacts that occur and often follow children into their adult lives when not addressed.
Long before the incident that Caleb witnessed at twelve years old, his brain had already been impacted by trauma. Caleb could not even remember his father but the violence he was exposed to was damaging nonetheless. In order to understand why you need to know a little about brain development.
The brain can be visualized in three basic sections: the brain stem, the cerebellum, and the cerebrum. Caleb, like all babies, developed the raw materials of all of these sections in utero. However, the brain stem is what defined his first experience of life. The brain stem is the control center of the body’s vital functions. Body temperature, breathing, blood pressure, sleep, and digestive functioning all get their cues from the brain stem.
The cerebellum contains what is sometimes referred to as the Limbic system. Among other things, this part of the brain receives input from the senses and begins the process of directing the body to respond appropriately. Stimuli enters a part of the Limbic System called the Thalamus and is passed on to the Amygdala. The Amygdala automatically assesses the emotional significance of the stimuli. If it is potentially threatening it sends the information to the hypothalamus which controls stress hormones including adrenaline that are released to prepare the body for fight or flight. Obviously, a baby cannot fight or flee and must depend on a caregiver.
During the first few years of life the cerebellum does its most significant growth. In fact, many neuroscientists believe that the first two years are the most critical in the development of the cerebellum. It develops in what neuroscientists call a “use-dependent” way. Meaning that the environment and stimuli it experiences program it over time.
During those first couple of years, the cerebrum which is responsible for abstract thinking, rational interpretation, and other higher cognitive functions is only minimally functional. A baby does not have the capacity to rationally think through what it is experiencing. The baby receives input and relies on attunement to a primary caregiver (whose cerebrum is informing and coordinating with their cerebellum) to regulate its emotional state.
While Caleb’s brain was in an important stage of development his primary caregiver-his mother-was in serious danger. Caleb experienced sensory input that was highly threatening and he was completely helpless to contextualize, or respond to it. When the fight or flight response is triggered severely or too often it can do significant damage to the brain’s ability to effectively manage input even in adults who were previously healthy. They see danger in normal every day situations, may struggle to react appropriately to stimuli, may struggle to regulate important bodily functions such as sleep patterns, and may find it impossible to focus or function consistently.
Even more so, young children whose brains are still in the early stages of development suffer serious consequences and in domestic violence situations often live in a constant state of high alert. When fight or flight is triggered it interrupts normal functioning and development.
The classic illustration of fight or flight in action is of stumbling across a bear during a walk in the woods. One second your brain and body are calmly processing input and experiencing a complex interconnected web of feelings, thoughts, and responses. The next second you see the bear charging your direction. In that nanosecond, with no conscious thought on your part, your brain shuts down everything and redirects all your energy to survival.
The Thalamus takes what you are seeing sends it to the Amygdala and the Amygdala sends it to the Hypothalamus which triggers the release of cortisol and adrenaline. Your veins open up and your heart rate rises pumping extra blood to the parts of your body you’ll need to survive. Your peripheral vision blurs allowing you to focus only on what is immediately important.
You take off running and your brain continues to enable you to focus on nothing other than surviving this bear attack. Your brain is super effective at this task. If you’re tearing through the woods and a tree branch rips your arm open. Your will likely not even register the pain because your brain has filtered that stimuli out as unimportant.
If you manage to outrun the bear your brain and body will slowly return to normal functioning and you have thoughts such as “where am I?” And “Ow, what happened to my arm?” You may experience some initial feelings that are your brain's way of beginning to process the experience. You may cry or laugh or shake. When you make it back to civilization you will probably tell everyone you know. You may have some nightmares, schedule some counseling sessions, or take a survival class. You will never forget the experience but you will gain the ability to reflect on it without having a physiological response.
Caleb grew up with a bear in his home. During some of the most important developmental years of his life, his brain was constantly being interrupted and his body was being placed in fight or flight mode. He may not have remembered his father but his brain had locked in the trauma and, without access to the normal ways that people in healthy environments have to process such experiences, in some ways his brain had become frozen in time.
As I looked across the circle at Caleb, I knew that his sullen demeanor was a protective wall for a brain that struggled to see anything but threats. Like many children with unprocessed trauma, Caleb struggled to attune to social cues, focus on cerebral tasks, or even participate in athletic or team activities that required brain and body to coordinate with others. The balance between his cerebrum and his Limbic system was skewed heavily toward the survival functions of the latter. The medial prefrontal cortex of the cerebrum is supposed to inform the emotional and survival responses of the Limbic system. When someone raises their voice, the cerebrum coordinates with the Amygdala to discern if they are just trying to be heard or if they are threatening harm. Are these arms wrapped around me hugging me or trapping me? Is that stranger staring at me or simply glancing around the room?
Those kinds of determinations are often made by our brains with little conscious thought on our part. But for Caleb the healthy coordination of his brain has been interrupted by trauma.
That day I wanted desperately to break through his defenses and help him connect body, mind, and community. I picked up a little squishy ball out of a bag of prizes beside me and tossed it gently in his direction without breaking my talk. I motioned for him to throw it back. For the next fifteen minutes We made a game of him trying to surprise me with a throw. I don’t know if he heard anything I said about anger or whatever I was talking about at the time. But his body loosened up. He smiled. His movements became rhythmically attuned to mine as we threw and caught the ball. For a few minutes he came down from high alert and connected. When I speak to churches and nonprofits, I talk about simple, practical ways such as this to connect with and provide healing space for children.
In his fascinating work The Body Keeps the Score, one of the world’s foremost experts on trauma, Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk writes “Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful satisfying lives.”
And he is not simply referring to immediate symptoms. He is talking about long term health.
What I have attempted to show in this article is the devastating neurological implications of experiencing family violence in childhood. In my next article I will tackle the practical and sometimes subtle ways that these experiences shape survivors, particularly those who struggle to find the space or resources to properly heal.