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Posted: Jul 6, 2009 12:12

IMPACTING THE BRAIN OF THE TRAUMATIZED CHILD

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By Dave Ziegler, PhD

Have you noticed that your child or one you are working with does not think like other children do? If so there may be a good reason for this. From brain research we know that impacting the child's brain is the key to success in helping troubled children. Changing the brain starts with understanding a few principles and then investing energy into interventions that are not as complicated as you might think, or as some would have you believe.

Many troubled children have faced traumatic experiences of one type or another. A simple definition of a traumatic experience is any event that overrides the ability of the individual to cope with the situation. When our ability to internally cope with an event is lost, a cascade of events takes place in the brain that nearly always has strong and predictable results.

Short-term consequences of a traumatic experience can include mental, emotional and behavioral problems. The first is a "fight or flight" response. Other short-term effects of trauma can include emotional instability and a heightened need for support and comfort or a heightened state of fear. As difficult as the short-term results of trauma can be, long-term problems are generally much worse, due to how they can affect every aspect of the child's life. Long-term consequences include: the inability of the child to self-regulate emotions and behavior, heightened states of arousal, hyper-sensitivity to any situation that is a reminder of the traumatic event and a significant barrier to trusting others. In turn these impacts can produce: anger, violence, hyperactivity, difficulties in concentration, an inability or resistance to trust anyone and a lack of empathy and selfish thought patterns. These issues then produce social difficulties at home, at school and in the community, as well as serve to cut the child off from family, friends and any type of support system.

Does this sound familiar? When the above problems continue without disruption, the child starts down a path of isolation, pushing away anyone who can provide support and help. A support system is a key factor in healing from abuse and coping with the stresses of life. These negative impacts of trauma make every period of life more difficult. As these individuals mature they do not seize life, but instead, life seizes them.

Strategies to Alter the Child's Brain

After trauma, children often have difficulties with stress management, they overreact frequently, they do not seem to learn from past experiences, and they come up short in nearly all areas of reasoning or executive functioning. Therefore the solution is to change the child's brain to learn how to regulate or control the reactive center of the brain and use executive brain functions. Of course this is much easier said than done, but it is very doable.

The general goal of interventions that alter the reactive parts the brain is to help the child react less and think more, such as:


  • Get on the same page with the child. Temporarily do the child's thinking for him or her. Do what you can to let the child know that you understand the struggle he or she has, and that you have a plan to help.

  • Help the child learn self-regulation. Teach self control by identifying feelings and use skills to modify these feelings.

  • Teach relaxation. A key step is to teach relaxation. Relaxing involves the use of mental abilities to calm down, stop intrusive thoughts, take deep breaths, and dozens of other strategies that children can learn.

  • Provide structure. Predictable rules and structure for traumatized children provide an external order that eliminates the pressure of internal chaos and this comforts the child.

  • Make predictions. Tell the child your prediction of what they will feel and how they will act in certain situations. The use of predictions can disrupt the habits of reactivity.

  • Develop a stress plan. A stress plan begins with an acknowledgment (usually from the parent) that reactivity to stress is beginning to occur. Outline steps toward relaxation, such as picking a place and knowing when to reduce stress.



The primary goal of all interventions to impact the brain of the traumatized child is to reduce reactivity and increase higher reasoning centers. At the point the child moves away from reacting to the situation, the following interventions can promote even higher order brain functions.


  • Promote executive functions. All interventions that encourage use of higher reasoning centers of the brain promote executive functions.

  • Encourage thinking. Anything that encourages the child to think is a good strategy. Writing, drawing and making choices all require higher order reasoning.

  • Use your words. When children are encouraged to verbalize thoughts and feelings they must use higher brain regions.

  • Teach self-mastery skills. Work with internal control such as: visualize calming images, yoga, breathing exercises and aerobic activities like walking or jogging.

  • Use repetition. Any helpful intervention to impact the brain must be repeated many times to be effective. It is the repetition that builds capacities within the brain by literally forming new neurological structures that over time can replace negative habits where the child has become stuck.



Basic concrete steps like those described can be the most helpful and effective for the child because they alter the brain in positive ways. If you want to know more about how the brain works and how to help it work even better after trauma, my book Traumatic Experience and the Brain can outline the next steps. Every traumatic experience has a negative influence on the brain but also remember that every successful experience of coping has a significant impact on the brain as well. The ideas and examples provided here are doable and they work with some of the most damaged children. Therefore I am confident that with practice these concepts and approaches can work with most children.

About the Author: Dr. Dave Ziegler is a psychologist who oversees the Neurological Reparative Therapy at Jasper Mountain in the mountains of OR. Jasper Mountain has a 27 year history of producing significant improvements with young children who have experienced trauma, have attachment issues, and/or a variety of serious emotional and behavioral problems. More can be learned about the author's books and publications or about Jasper Mountain at their new website, www.jaspermountain.org.




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