Listening to the ‘echoes of the past’

I recently had the opportunity to attend a 2-day training event co-sponsored by the Ministry of Children and Family Development and the Fraser Valley Child Development Centre with Dr. Bruce Perry, a child psychiatrist and internationally recognized authority in the area of child maltreatment and the impact of trauma and neglect on the developing brain.  He is currently the Senior Fellow of The Child Trauma Academy, a non-profit organization based in Houston, Texas and a Professor at Northwestern University’s School of Medicine. A researcher, author, teacher, and clinician Dr. Perry has written hundreds of articles and two books, The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Over the next three articles I hope to highlight a handful of the important findings of his work and make them relevant and tangible so they can help inform our lives, our reactions, our behaviours. Why? Because no matter your profession or vocation we share the desire – and ability – to make a difference in a child’s life.

Early childhood experiences can shape a child and their culture. Human beings become a reflection of the world in which they develop. Safe, predictable, and enriched can equal self-regulating, thoughtful, and productive individuals whereas chaotic, threatening, and devoid of supportive words or relationships can equal an aggrieve, impulsive, and relationship-challenged individual.

During the first three years of life, the human brain develops to 90 per cent of adult size and puts in place the majority of systems and structures that will be responsible for all future emotional, behavioural, social, and physiological functioning during the rest of life.  Experiences that take place during this window of organization have a greater potential to influence the brain in positive or negative ways. Any early developmental trauma and neglect can have a disproportionate influence on brain organization and later brain functioning.  

The longer a child spends in an adverse environment – the earlier and more damaging the neglect – and the more pervasive and resistant to recovery the deficits.

It may take many years of hard work to help repair the damage from only a few months of neglect in infancy. But it is important to know that a brain changed in destructive ways by trauma and neglect can also be changed in healing ways. One of them being exposing a child over and over again to positive and developmentally appropriate experiences.

Traumatized children may have less capacity to tolerate the normal demands and stresses of school, home, and social life. When faced with challenges, resilient children are likely to stay calm, normal children may become slightly anxious, and vulnerable children may react with fear or terror. Especially since the traumatized child lives in an aroused state, unable to learn from social and emotional cues due to the repetitive activation of their stress response system from the early childhood maltreatment.

Features of a traumatic world – noise, chaos, fear, isolation, deprivation, neglect – alter the developing brain of fetuses, babies, and toddlers. Their brains adapt to the toxic environment but these adaptations are at odds with the requirements for school and social relationships. These children are primed to survive our world, leaving them ill-prepared to thrive in it.

We might need to redefine trauma, neglect, and maltreatment to encompass a broader spectrum of inappropriate or less advantageous behaviours. Move away from thinking it is only physical and sexual abuse and realize it can encompass constant upheaval, arguing and fighting, and ignoring of a child’s needs.

Echoes from the past. That’s what Dr. Perry calls these early negative experiences that have far-reaching consequences and implications. Does an echo always have to be negative – no, of course not, but when it is, what seems like something quite harmless and quiet can become supersonic. In Part 2 of this series I plan to examine the role of attachment more closely in relation to early childhood experiences and future consequences.

 For more information about Dr. Perry and his work please visit www.childtrauma.org.

Eryn Wicker (M.A., R.C.C) is a mental health clinician with the Child and Youth Mental Health team of the Ministry of Children and Family Development in Chilliwack, B.C.

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