The sole purpose of this thesis is to examine the irrevocable effects of trauma on physical, cognitive and psychosocial development in children during the middle childhood period. Children from all socio-economic backgrounds, ethnicities, and races are affected by trauma. Trauma experiences during middle childhood increase the risk of long-term complex consequences in adolescence and adulthood. Understanding the effects of the traumatic experiences on child’s development will allow prevention and treatment of childhood trauma.
Middle childhood, ages six to 12, is a critical period of life and is often overlooked because the large portion of the research is focused on either early childhood development or adolescent growth (Mah, 2012).
However, during middle childhood, the sophisticated development of cognitive and physical areas is supported by the growth and the changes in the brain, which in return supports psychosocial development (Hauser-Cram, p. 398).
Over the past decades, many believed in children’s resiliency and not being affected by trauma (James, 2013). However, today’s research shows that exposure to trauma, especially during middle childhood, is extremely common and is often referred to as a “silent epidemic” (Andrea et al, 2012).
According to the research done by National Survey of Children’s Health (NSCH), almost half the U.S. children or approximately 35 million, have experienced at least one or more types of serious childhood trauma (Stevens, 2013). In 2006, 400,000 U.S. children received emergency medical care for injuries sustained due to violence (APA, 2008). With this in mind, traumatized children are at a much higher risk for experiencing behavioral, emotional and social consequences later in life.
Erik Erikson, the famous developmental psychologist, believed that child development follows a predictable path unless it is influenced by forces such as illness, neglect, domestic violence or environmental tragedies such as fires, earthquakes, floods or political conflicts such as war. Erikson argued that the longer the exposure to the traumatic events, the higher the likelihood of a child’s development to be stopped or reversed (Williams, 2018).
One of the important differences between middle childhood and other developmental stages is the rapid development of the brain. During this period, the child’s brain reaches almost 90 to 95 percent of its adult weight (Houser-Gram, p. 401) and is actively going through synaptic pruning and myelination within the corpus callosum and subcortical areas, which allows the conduction speed and synaptic transmission between the right and left hemisphere to increase (Mah, 2012). However, even though these developments make child’s brain more refined, they are critically dependent on a child’s environment.
A report from Harvard University on the Developing Child states that trauma permanently changes a child’s body and brain (NSCDC, 2014). A body’s response to any trauma or stress is to activate a neurochemical system throughout the body. Hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol are known as “stress hormones”. They allow the body to react to danger or to deal with a range of stresses by mobilizing energy stores and altering blood flow, sending it to the major muscle groups. The release of these hormones is critical for survival. However, if the body does not stop producing cortisol, for example in situations such as chronic stress or reoccurring traumatic events, the long-term effect can range from suppression of immune and memory functions to loss of minerals in the bones and muscle tone (Sapolsky, 2000), thus affecting growth and development.
Further, children who experience high levels of adrenaline and cortisol can develop elevated blood pressure, which stresses the heart and circulatory system; their glucose level can spike which can develop into a Type 2 diabetes; and weakening of the immune and inflammatory systems can occur leading to the development of infections, autoimmune diseases, cancer, depression, lupus and multiple sclerosis (Merk, 2018). Also, children who were exposed to chronic trauma may become hypersensitive to physical contact and develop somatic symptoms such as abdominal pains and migraines.
During these times, healthy eating can help children to support healthy growth and development into adulthood. A healthy diet can also help a child to manage their post-trauma symptoms and reclaim control over their health. Eating protein such as boiled eggs and low-fat yogurt at breakfast can help a child to feel fuller longer and help keep blood sugar steady. Eating complex carbohydrates such as oatmeal, quinoa, and whole-grain cereals, increase the amount of serotonin in the brain that is known to promote a calming effect. Staying hydrated is also important because even mild dehydration can influence the mood (Sawchuk, 2017).
Furthermore, childhood trauma is associated with global cognitive deficits, including impaired intelligence, poor academic performance, memory, and learning disabilities (De Bells, 2009) Children are not small adults, they think and process experiences and information differently. Theorist Jean Piaget proposed this idea and helped revolutionize how child development is looked at today. Piaget’s theory of cognitive development talked about the steps of children’s intellectual development. One of the steps relative to this essay’s topic is “the concrete operational stage” which is a period between the ages of seven and 11. Piaget argued that during this developmental stage children begin to think logically about events and concepts, thus when affected by a traumatic experience, children tend to develop troubles with reasoning (Hauser-Cram, p. 436).
Post-traumatic experiences leave children easily distracted and unable to focus. They may display difficulty finishing a project or homework and unable to concentrate on more than one task at a time. These children can also be vulnerable to language and problem-solving deficits such as trouble communicating thoughts and feelings and expressing them in an organized manner; difficulty starting or following conversations; inability to analyze information, solve problems and decide on the best solution (Neumann, 2014). Traumatized children may also begin to display deficits in attention and concentration, memory and processing speed (McClintock, 2010).
A wide range of therapies exist to help children to overcome their post-traumatic experiences, however, a therapy called “Mindfulness meditation” consists of retraining child’s attention on the present moment and has shown to increase attention and working memory in children who have experienced trauma (Ortiz, 2017). It has also shown to strengthen the brain’s ability to control emotions and reduce anxiety (Wolkin, 2016).
Next, psychosocial development consists of emotions, morals, beliefs, and ethics, and even though it occurs throughout all developmental stages, during middle childhood children develop a sense of either industry or inferiority (Hauser-Cram, p.510). According to theorist Kohlberg, during middle childhood children learn to conform to social rules in order to maintain social order (Hauser-Cram, p. 506). But when children go through a traumatic experience, their ability to learn become compromised, thereby causing children to behave differently.
Exposure to trauma early in life increases the risk for development of psychosocial and behavioral problems such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (Gould, 2012). Children may begin to display mental health issues like depression, suicidal thoughts, anxiety and aggressive behavior (Hauser-Cram, p. 496). They might begin to feel self-blame and experience sleep disturbances. Detachment or withdrawal from social interactions and refusal to attend school can also be consequences of trauma. A number of risk factors have been found to make children susceptible to the development of emotional disorders like phobic disorders, anti-social disorders and co-morbid conditions such as alcohol and drug abuse. It has been proven that children affected by trauma have higher rates of teenage pregnancy, school dropout and juvenile law violations during adolescent and adult years (Purtscher, 2008).
Professor, Soyeon Ahn (2011), from the University of Miami released a publication that reviewed 73 studies examining the effects of exercise on a child’s mental health. In her publication, she notes that physical activity significantly reduces mental health problems in children such as PTSD, depression, and anxiety and improves self-esteem (p. 385-397). Activities such as resistance or strength training had the greatest health benefits on psychosocial recovery. Based on a study done by Harvard University, exercise releases endorphins which are chemicals that enhance mood; reduce levels of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol and promote healthy sleeping habits (Harvard Health, 2011). The feeling of anxiety is part of the ‘flight or fight’ system, which is a key defense reaction in the sympathetic nervous system. To release the stress hormone, cortisol, the body has the need to move, thereby involving children in sports such as soccer, martial art, basketball, and swimming can help with post-trauma experiences (Schwartz, 2014).
Moreover, many would agree, that all children need a safe, nurturing and stable environment to grow in; however, it is even more crucial for the children who had experienced trauma. Stable relationships and environments can provide for better recovery from the past trauma and develop the skills to cope with triggers such as sounds, smells or sudden movements. Giving the opportunities to children to discuss what happened or play out their feelings about the trauma will allow the healing process to begin. Do not pressure to talk, but instead allow a child to tell his or her story. Helping a child to find routes to express their feelings in a variety of ways, such as drawing, writing or through music. can promote better communication, healing and a better quality of life.
In conclusion, the development of a child is divided into several areas because of all these certain traits. However, the physical, cognitive and psychosocial developments all influence each other in a variety of ways. First, physical development affects cognitive and psychosocial developments because the brain affects the development of thought patterns, and behavioral patterns will make thought development to be different. Second, cognitive development affects psychosocial development because the process of thinking and reasoning can change the ability to comprehend feelings and emotions. Third, psychosocial development plays a role in physical development and vice versa. The sense of confidence can be affected by physical development because during puberty the roles can be reversed. For example, males tend to feel more confident if they appear more mature at an earlier age. On the contrary, females tend to feel insecure if they appear more developed than their peers. The different areas of child development have unique characteristics, however, all of them influence each other.
Clearly, traumatic events have a profound impact on child development with physical, cognitive and psychosocial consequences. While the short-term effects are argued among scientists and researchers, there is an overall agreement that childhood trauma has long term problems. Adults must recognize without judgment, but rather with compassion that trauma is boundless, affecting children and adults across generations.