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Childhood: The Lasting Effects

Pensive girl

Several recent programmes or articles that have come to my attention have underlined the lasting and profound effects of childhood on the psyche.

First, the rather disturbing pictures of the deathbed of the middle-aged Michael Jackson with a doll that he apparently took to bed which were shown to the court in the trial of his doctor, Conrad Murray. Then there was the recording of his drugged and slurred speech lamenting the fact that he had not had a proper childhood.

Well, we all know how that particular story played out. 

Second, in a recent article about the former American newscaster, Larry King, who is now 78 years old, he admitted that he had never got over the death of his father when he was a young boy.

His father had died when he was 44 and Larry was 9 years old, and as a consequence of his death, his mother was forced onto welfare and Larry lost all interest in school but managed to graduate and then got a job to help support his family. 

In spite of the fact that his father had died at a young age of a heart attack and his only other sibling - a brother - had also had a cardiac arrest, Larry King had continued to smoke 60 cigarettes a day, eat poorly and take no exercise. That is, right up until he had a heart attack and quintuple bypass surgery in 1987.

It could be said that his father, his brother and Larry King all had 'broken hearts'. He is now on his eighth marriage, so these early experiences may also have coloured his ability to form lasting intimate attachments.

Finally, a recent documentary explored the life of the bestselling British author, Hilary Mantel. She has written several novels and won many prizes including the Man-Booker prize for Wolf Hall which is a vivid imagining of life of Thomas Cromwell in the court of King Henry VIII of England.  

Born in Derbyshire, England, her mother moved her lover into the marital home and bedroom whilst her father was moved into the spare room. Until one day when Hilary was eleven years old, her father just disappeared as far as the children were concerned, never to be seen or heard from again.

Raised a Catholic and attending a Convent school as a young girl, she had internalised that notion that she was faulty and this had bred guilt in her. In her words it was "Like installing an internal policeman, and one moreover who keeps changing the law."

Hilary went on to have terrible health problems as a young woman, and as no physical cause for her ailments could be found, it was assumed that her complaints were psychosomatic. She was hospitalised and treated with anti-psychotic drugs for some time in her mid-twenties.

Eventually she received a diagnosis of  endometriosis which she identified herself from a medical textbook. She then had a hysterectomy in her late twenties leaving her unable to have children. The subsequent pharmaceutical treatment including steroids caused her to bloat to twice her previous size and her health has been precarious ever since.

All three people listed above had gone on to enjoy great acclaim and considerable fortunes, but were/are still haunted by the events of their early years.  

So why does childhood have such a profound effect upon our future health and happiness? These years were, after all, only a small proportion of our life. And why is it that people tend to repeat painful patterns from childhood such as divorce or abuse in adulthood although it is the last thing they ever want in their life? 

The answers to these questions may be threefold. One aspect has to do with the highly receptive state in which these events occurred, the second has to do with the way the child's brain is developing and they way in which traumatic episodes can subvert that development and the third may relate to soul contracts. Each of these factors is examined in turn below.


The hypnagogic state

There are four brainwaves of different frequencies associated with day-to-day consciousness. Normal adult wakefulness is dominated by Beta brainwaves, relaxed but creative states are associated with Alpha brainwaves, deep relaxation and sleep with Theta and deep sleep with Delta.

However, as children up to the age of about seven, we are in a dreamlike, receptive, so called hypnagogic state where Theta brain waves predominate. Theta brainwaves are the second slowest frequency of brainwaves and they typically cycle at a rate of 4-7 times per second (4 – 7 Hz).  

Different brainwaves

As adults we experience these hypnagogic states as the dream-like trance on the boundary between sleeping and waking. The characteristics of predominantly Theta brainwaves include: 

  • Random, vivid, fantastical, frightening, and distorted images which may occur as nightmares.
  • Recall of childhood memories and long-term memory. Memories stored in the hippocampus are stored in Theta and this is one of the reasons that even elderly people with diminished memory can usually recall the events of their childhood easily.
  • Difficulty concentrating. Whereas the majority of healthy people are able to naturally shift between the different brainwaves, children with attention-deficit problems (ADD and ADHD) are not able to shift out of the Theta state when required. 
  • Intuitions. As children we are frequently socialised out of our intuitions, by being told 'Not to be so silly' and so we come to ignore our inborn compass, and intuition is relegated by the much more limited mind. 
  • Receptivity to subconscious programming of new ideas and suggestions. This includes the ability to hyperfocus and super learning states - especially those relating to learning language.
  • Healing of the brain and body can occur and the immune system in particular is boosted. 
  • Intense relaxation combined with feeling energised. 
  • Deep, intense emotions. 
  • Creativity. The most creative people show a predominance of Theta brainwaves and
  • Spiritual experiences.


This early receptive phase programmes the child for the world they have entered almost as if computer software is being downloaded. We do not question things during this time, but assume that this is the way life is.

So that parents rowing is regarded as being 'normal' or having your parents split up so that abandonment by one of the people you love most becomes deeply ingrained in your psyche - to be acted out maybe 30 years later.

During this phase of development the child also engages in 'magical thinking' and frequently imagines that things that go wrong are their fault. This can add guilt to the burden of traumatic episodes experienced in these formative years.


Development of the brain 

Research in the last 20 years has revealed the important role of nurture on brain development and has shown that we are not simply programmed by our genes - by nature - to develop and survive. The way this interplay works is that the brain forges connections in anticipation of developmental stages, but then these connections are either made stronger by stimulation or perish if not used. This is referred to as the 'use it or lose it' principle. 

Once these connections perish, it is not impossible to create the links, but it is much harder. Researchers use the term plasticity to describe this process and it is this plasticity that accounts for the role that the environment - nurture - plays in brain development.

During foetal development, the neurons that are created migrate to form the various parts of the brain. And as babies we are born with an almost full complement of 100 billion neurons (hence the disproportionately large head size of the human baby). 

Exposure to alcohol or other drugs, especially early in pregnancy, has also been shown to alter the development of the cortex, reduce the number of neurons that are created, and affect the way in which chemical messengers are used. These effects are linked to long-term deficits with attention, memory, problem-solving, and abstract thinking.

Malnutrition (which is a lot more common than most people suppose), during either gestation or infancy, has also been shown to result in stunted brain growth and slower passage of electrical signals in the brain

While the basic structure of the brain is intact at birth, much of its growth occurs during the first few years of life. The brainstem and midbrain which are present at birth govern our automatic bodily functions such as heart rate, breathing, eating, and sleeping. Almost all other functions are developed as the infant grows and this process of brain growth occurs sequentially from the 'bottom up'.

The last regions of the brain to fully develop are the limbic system, involved in regulating emotions, and the cortex, involved in abstract thought. As the brain develops, it grows larger and more dense such that by the age of 3, an infant's brain has reached almost 90 percent of its adult size 

By the age of 3 years old, our brains have approximately 1,000 trillion synapses - many more than they will ever need. But about half of the synapses are discarded by adolescence leaving the adult brain with the 500 trillion connections that will remain throughout adulthood.

As these neuronal pathways become reinforced, memories are created that enable us to navigate our world without really having to think about it such as the 'automatic' ability to walk and to talk.

Researchers believe that there are windows of opportunity or 'sensitive periods' for the development of certain capabilities. Whilst synaptic connections are being forged in infancy the opportunities for learning are almost limitless, but as the process of pruning of synapses starts to increase, the opportunity to learn begins to decrease.

Each stage builds upon previous developmental stages such that the child is able to learn and master each step more easily if their brains have built an efficient network of pathways.  

All babies are primed to form an attachment to their primary caregiver. This relationship is central to all future emotional relationships, and provides a platform for all other learning, since the infant needs to feel safe, calm, protected, and nurtured by their caregivers.

If this attachment process is disrupted, as occurs with abusive or neglectful caretakers, the child’s brain becomes intently focused on immediate survival needs rather than building the foundation for future growth and development.

It seems that aggressive, submissive, and frustration behaviours may be inborn, but that if relationships with caregivers are positive, the child learns to regulate these emotions and behaviours. However, if the relationships with caregivers are negative or weak, the lower-brain responses become dominant and the higher cognitive regulating structures do not develop to their full capacity.

This means that the young child may not fully develop the cognitive ability to control their emotions, and does not develop an awareness of, or empathy for, others’ emotionsA child that completely fails to form any emotional attachments may lack all empathy with others and go on to become a sociopath or even a murderer.  

The right brain in particular processes emotions and this is important because it is connected to the centres that regulate the internal organs, memory, emotion, stress, understanding others, an autobiographical sense of self and the meaning of life. This is also significant because the brain ultimately controls all bodily functions, and so childhood experiences can indirectly alter our bodies’ responses.


“It is now clear that what a child experiences in the first few years of life largely determines how his brain will develop and how he will interact with the world throughout his life.”

Ounce of Prevention Fund, 1996


Childhood trauma

It is estimated that over 3 million US and 500,000 UK children and adolescents each year experience some form of traumatic event. Trauma is defined as anything that disrupts a child’s sense of safety and security and which can make the child feel vulnerable and lead them to perceive the world to be a dangerous place. 

Whilst some brief episodes of moderate, predictable stress during childhood are generally not problematic and may even help to prime the brain to mount a response, prolonged, severe, or unpredictable stress - including abuse and neglect - during a child’s early years is problematic.

Whilst trauma can and does alter an adult brain, trauma in childhood subverts the normal biochemistry and architecture of child's brain affecting later developmental stages and leaving them at risk of addiction and psychiatric problems later in life. It also makes the intergenerational transfer of abusive and aggressive behaviour more likely and may set the individual up for later serious, degenerative or chronic illness. 


"Our brains are sculpted by our early experiences. Maltreatment is a chisel that shapes a brain to contend with strife, but at the cost of deep, enduring wounds." 

              Martin Teicher


It is not the magnitude of the event that seems most significant, but the subjective experience of the trauma that determines the wound. The stresses of childhood also seem to be cumulative so that the stress of having a parent with cancer, or a series of losses can mount up. And the experience of previous stress also renders the child more vulnerable to subsequent traumas.

The traumatised child may have difficulties functioning at home or at school; feel fearful, anxious or depressed; have an inability to form close, satisfying relationships; may experience terrifying memories, nightmares, or flashbacks and seek to avoid more and more things that remind them of the trauma. 

Traumatic experiences can short circuit the storage of memory such that they may not be able to capture the trauma in words and may be unable to integrate the memory whilst becoming fixated on the past. They may also regress to an earlier developmental stage when they felt safer and more cared for. This may result in younger children wetting the bed or wanting a bottle; and older children becoming fearful of being alone. 


The long-term effects of trauma

Our brains are not built to judge the environment, just to adapt to survive it. So that an infant may be well adapted for survival in a hostile home environment, but maladapted to the world at large.

Studies in animals of the effects of inescapable stress have shown that it produces a variety of behaviours including abnormal alarm states, aggression, sensitivity to stress, altered sleep patterns, deficits in learning and memory, and withdrawal.

And primates subjected to early abuse and deprivation have shown a tendency to repeat the pattern as adults. The mistreated males tend to become hyperaggressive, and the females tend to engage in violent relationships and fail to protect themselves and their offspring against danger.

The long-term effects of trauma include:

  • Over-development and sensitisation of the regions of the brain involved in anxiety and fear responses. This may be at the expense of other neural pathways in other regions of the brain involved in memory, emotion, complex thought and learning. Systems are affected which can cause a cascade of changes in attention, impulse control, sleep, and fine motor control. Fear can also exhaust the hippocampus, which is involved in cognition and memory and interfere with the development of the subcortical and limbic systems which can result in extreme anxiety, depression, and difficulty forming attachments to other people.
  • Elevated levels of cortisol, indicating that their bodies’ response to stress has been impairedEven if the environment improves to become less threatening the body may be unable to change.
  • A perpetual state of vigilance and hyper-arousal in which the individual feels they can never let their guard down and where they become sensitive to any non-verbal cues that they perceive as threateningThis may manifest as hyperactivity, anxiety, impulsivity, and sleep problems. This response is more common in older children and males. 
  • The traumatised individual may provoke threatening behaviour from others in order to have some control over when and how the aggression occurs. 
  • Dissociation is characterised by first attempting to bring caretakers to help, and if this is unsuccessful, becoming motionless and compliant and eventually dissociating. This is also known as the 'surrender' responseDissociation is more common in younger children and in females.  Repeated trauma can also strengthen the pathways for this response.


Soul contracts

We are all of us enrolled in Earth school and our ego self is experiencing lessons that have been determined for us prior to our birth by our higher Self. Many of these can be exceptionally unpleasant and appear random and pointless to our ego self. However, understand that everything in your life is supposed to happen - and that nothing happens by 'accident'.

Consider the possibility that you have come to learn the lessons of your life experience. And that good and bad it is all part of the human condition and breaks you open to give you empathy for your fellow man and to aid the further development of your soul.  


Recovering from childhood trauma

The physiological responses outlined above initiated by childhood trauma may be responsible for the chronic, serious and degenerative illness of later life. And whilst many may know that they had a difficult childhood, many of these memories may also be repressed and stored in the bodymind. 

So what can you do as an adult, to overcome the problems of a less than ideal childhood?

Several physical therapies aim to release memories as stored in the body using deep tissue massage and stretching and any physical therapy has the potential to promote release of repressed memories.

Talking therapies too may help you make sense of chaotic memories, but many causative traumas are not accessible to the conscious mind. However, it may be possible to access these subconscious memories using hypnotherapy. 

Acupuncture and the use of flower remedies may also gently release trapped emotions. For a list of Bach Flower Remedies available through this site click for the UK or US or to order to the Supplements page

Don't underestimate the value of the seemingly simple Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) or Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR). The former causes release of emotions stored in the bodymind by tapping points relating to the acupuncture meridians and EMDR incorporates elements of cognitive-behavioural therapy with eye movements or other forms of rhythmic, left-right stimulation. These back-and-forth eye movements are thought to work to 'unfreeze' traumatic memories, allowing you to resolve them.

Finally, a deep willingness to face the memories that you may have been running from is key.


Further resources

You might also be interested in the following: 

Read button

The Brain: The First Trimester


Sexual Abuse

The Brain and Mercury

Autonomic Nervous System

Sibling Rivalry

Book Review: The Happiness Trap

For an explanation of how chronic, serious and degenerative illness often has its roots in childhood trauma and how to recover by addressing the issue using natural methods please refer to The Natural Recovery Plan book

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Secure Attachment Relationships

Recreating Our Past in the Present



Or for all media use the Search facility at the top of the page


Childhood - The lasting effects: Article summary

This article looks at the various ways in which early childhood can influence later experiences in adulthood. This includes the fact that young children are in a particularly receptive state, and the way the brain is programmed to develop by creating and excess of connections and then pruning them dynamically according to the needs of the environment. Research demonstrating the long-term consequences of this brain development strategy are discussed. 


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The Natural Recovery Plan Ezine November 2011 Issue 23. Copyright Alison Adams 2011. All rights reserved
Dr Alison Adams Dentist, Naturopath, Author and Online Health Coach

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