Why kids’ brains really matter…

Every now and again something new comes along that changes things significantly.

In my view, right now that thing is our new understanding of how brain function is affected by abuse.

Sketch - why childrens brains matter

Photo courtesy of ©123rf/kasza (adapted)

We now know that children who have suffered maltreatment in their early years, have a lot more than bad memories to deal with.

Why you need to know a bit about brains…

In dealing with troubled young people, we are joining a work in progress. They are not a blank sheet when they come to us.

As Louis Cozolino says:

“Our brains are built in the enigmatic interface between experience and genetics, where nurture and nature become one.” Louis Cozolino

These kids have usually had some pretty horrendous experiences by the time they come to us for help. We are often dealing with the residue of nurture gone badly wrong!

More than a bad attitude…

Sad boy...

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto/fatnaany

I’ve lost count how many times I’ve heard Mr & Mrs Public make comments about troubled young people to the effect that their “attitude stinks.” As if these kids could flick a mental switch and begin behaving courteously and with all the social decorum that we do…

This is clearly a nonsense. And we don’t harbour the same thoughts – or do we?

I have to admit that have to remind myself fairly regularly that this young person isn’t operating on the same footing as one might expect from most.

What’s the difference? A lot!

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How brains are affected by maltreatment…

Now I’m no neurologist, just to be clear, but here are some of the broad principles of how growing brains are affected by trauma, abuse or other maltreatment experiences:

  • Affective dysregulation – sometimes called poor emotional regulation. Children who grow up in stressful environments are subject to greater than normal levels of cortisol and other brain chemicals. These effect the way they grow and can set them up to over-respond in situations that are NOT stressful to most of us and don’t merit such responses. If the young person you are working with gets angry and/or aggressive, seemingly without cause, this may be the issue. They are pre-disposed to respond this way because of their early exposure to threat and danger. It may help to think of them as having a hair trigger…
  • Hypervigilance – this is the state of constantly screening for threat. Research has shown that children and young people who live their early years in a state of stress and danger, may develop the tendency
    Photo courtesy of 123rf/sergeiminsk

    Photo courtesy of 123rf/sergeiminsk

    to behave like a radar. They are automatically more aware of their surroundings – people, places, movements, etc. As such they may struggle with tasks requiring thought and concentration because they are very distractable. Think of it as living in a state of expectation of something bad happening.

  • Post traumatic stress – For all the reasons already listed, many such children display symptoms that correlate with PTSD. Sadly the current diagnostic tools (ICD10 & DSM-V) do not allow such a diagnosis due to the causal events occurring too long ago. A diagnosis of Developmental Trauma Disorder is still under consideration. In the meantime many young people will suffer from intrusive re-experiencing of past traumatic events – sometime referred to as flashbacks. They may “tune out” and appear absent or present as emotionally numb. Once again, these traits find their origins in early maltreatment experiences.

Why does this matter?…

It matters because the behaviour displayed by such troubled young people is not about a bad attitude or a blatant failure to comply. It’s because of much deeper developmental problems which they have no control over.

Our work, therefore, is about understanding the source of their behaviour and offering interventions to match. Punishments, in this context, are a nonsense…

What can we do to help?…

  • Be informed – future posts will look in more detail at these and other sequelae of trauma and abuse. There has been a lot of good writing on this subject. For example, check out the Child Trauma Academy (CTA) publications and the Institute for Recovery from Childhood Trauma (IRCT). If you’re into podcasting you might enjoy the Brain Science Podcast. There are a number of recommended books that may help in your work, here.
    • In my view, the best book for understanding the inter-related nature of attachment and brain development is The Developing Mind by Dan Siegel (Read my full review here). Another good read on brain development more generally as it applies to teenagers, check out David Bainbridge’s book, Teenagers: A Natural History (Read more here).

Click here for your free copy of my e-book – Connecting With Troubled Young People…

  • Assess thoroughly – if you have responsibility for assessing young people, be careful to look fully at the history. Where young people have experienced abuse, trauma, complex losses, etc. it is important to be mindful that their functioning will be effected. They may not have the level of control or self-regualtion that would be normal. Bear this in mind…

 What do you think?…

  • Please let me know your thoughts about trauma and your work with young people…   Leave a comment below or click here.

Related previous posts:

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© Jonny Matthew 2015

Disclosure of material connection: Some of the links in this post are “affiliate links.” This means that if you click the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers.


Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Kirk Hawksworth

    I think that the affect such trauma has upon the developing adolescent brain is quite fascinating. Teenagers are naturally risk takers anyway – it is a natural part of development – but when this is affected by previous traumatic events in a child’s life, it must be hard for a teenager, and for those who look after them, to make sense of what is happening.

    • jonnymatthew

      Yep, dead right Kirk. Taking account of “what’s normal” is really important as well as working hard to discover what might have resulted from a traumatic history. But I guess this is all the more reason for us to work on getting our assessments right. Thanks for commenting! Cheers, JM

  • And there is compelling evidence that problems with physical brain development in the child from conception to maturity can have long term and irreversible deleterious effects, even if they can be ameliorated. Examples are foetal iodine deficiency, foetal alcohol exposure, and lack of stimulation (Romanian orphanages). These can all be prevented or minimised by effective parental education backed up by state action.

    • jonnymatthew

      Thanks John! Good stuff! J.

  • Leonna Anderson

    Hello mate
    Do you know any information please on vunrable children please
    Thank you

    • jonnymatthew

      Hi Leonna,

      Happy to help if i can. Why don’t you email me via the contact form (http://jonnymatthew.com/contact-form/) and let me know what exactly is you would like more information on.

      Cheers, Jonny.

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  • Tracy Pike CEO Cyca

    so much education needed Jonny pls keep doing what you do !
    Tracy CEO CYCA

    • jonnymatthew

      Thanks Tracy! J.