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’ emotions. A 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
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."
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 impaired. Even 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 threatening. This 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' response. Dissociation is more common in younger children and in females. Repeated trauma can also strengthen the pathways for this response.
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.