How Trauma Affects Developing Brains

Childhood experiences can shape children and young adults for the rest of their lives. Not only can trauma negatively impact growth and development, but it can change and affect developing brains, both structurally and functionally.

The Developing Brain

In childhood and adolescence, the brain is still being formed and developed. Young people can learn and adapt quickly, and some areas of the brain are not fully matured until people reach their twenties.

The brain is made up of three main parts:

  • The cerebrum is the brain’s main part that houses the left and right hemispheres.
  • The cerebellum is a small part at the rear of the brain that coordinates movement and speech.
  • The brainstem connects the brain and spinal cord and regulates bodily issues such as breathing, blood pressure, and heart rate.

There are many sections within the brain, each of which has a different job. For example, the prefrontal cortex has a significant role in decision making, impulse control, emotional reactions, and attention. However, this is one of the last areas of the brain to develop and can be a factor in teenage behaviour.

The amygdala is another vital part of the brain. It is responsible for processing threatening or fearful events and helps people to detect threats and respond accordingly. However, the amygdala plays a more significant role in young adults and teenagers. One study found that teenagers with a larger amygdala displayed more aggressive behaviour.[1] The increased role of the amygdala could explain why feelings of anger, fear, and aggression may be more intense in young adults than in adults.

Developing Brains and Trauma

Experiencing trauma or adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) such as abuse, neglect, and exposure to domestic violence can change the way the developing brain grows.

The human brain begins to develop and learn at the moment of birth. When children learn that their caregivers are unable or refuse to give them the care they need or grow up with abusive caregivers, they begin to learn and adapt to survive.

The amygdala is one part of the brain that can change dramatically. Children exposed to abuse and neglect can cause the threat system to mature quickly to keep them safe, known as the stress acceleration model. However, studies have also linked experiences of abuse to an underactive threat system, known as threat avoidance, which can contribute to dissociation.[2]

These changes can cause children and young adults to be intensely hypervigilant of their surroundings, always looking for threats or danger. This can lead to many problems, such as:

  • Struggling to pay attention
  • The reduced ability to manage their emotions
  • Being very sensitive to rejection
  • Increased symptoms of anxiety and depression

The brain’s reward system can also be significantly altered by exposure to trauma. The brain releases dopamine as a reward for specific situations, such as when eating a meal or doing something enjoyable. However, in children who have been exposed to abuse or neglect, the reward system is less active. This can lead to an increased risk of depression in adolescence, reduced motivation for daily activities, and the reduced ability to experience pleasure in young adults.

Memory is also heavily impacted due to trauma. The hippocampus is crucial in forming and storing memories, but children with a history of trauma can struggle with their memory, and some studies have shown a decreased amount of activity in the hippocampus. Another study found that children exposed to violence struggled with learning difficulties and these difficulties worsened with age.[3]

Reprogramming the Brain

While childhood trauma can change the brain, healing can change it too. The brain is highly adaptable and is capable of changing at any age. This concept, which helps people adapt to their environments throughout life, is known as neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity helps the brain to create new neural pathways, which can overwrite old, unhealthy patterns. It was previously thought that once people reached their early twenties and their brains stopped developing, it was fixed; however, this was proven false.

The brain is still adaptable in adolescence, but young adults may still need support to foster neuroplasticity and change the pathways in their brains, such as:

  • Sleeping well – teenagers and young adults need approximately nine hours of sleep per night, although many may not get this. Trauma can interrupt sleep with nightmares and flashbacks, and many young adults may be unable to sleep due to anxiety about school or home life. Improving sleep by removing electronic devices from the bedroom, having a set bedtime, and avoiding screens at least an hour before sleeping can help young people’s brains rest, recover, and aid in constructing new neural pathways.
  • Learning a new skill – setting aside hobbies is excellent for self-care but can also benefit neuroplasticity. Learning a new language or instrument, being artistic, and travelling are all great ways to encourage neuroplasticity.
  • Meditating – meditation can directly impact the brain, with some research suggesting that it can stimulate the growth of new grey matter, which can help improve emotional regulation. Meditations that focus on self-compassion and kindness can be particularly effective in encouraging greater neuroplasticity.

The developing brain is almost like a sponge, absorbing environmental cues to be able to grow, change, and adapt. However, for children and young adults exposed to abuse and trauma, these changes can affect their brain development, causing significant differences in the amygdala and hippocampus. However, changing the brain is possible, especially for young people – neuroplasticity allows people to grow, change, and develop healthy coping mechanisms and new ways of thinking.

If you have a client or know of someone struggling with trauma, reach out to us at Khiron Clinics. We believe that we can improve therapeutic outcomes and avoid misdiagnosis by providing an effective residential programme and outpatient therapies addressing underlying psychological trauma. Allow us to help you find the path to realistic, long-lasting recovery. For more information, call us today. UK: 020 3811 2575 (24 hours). USA: (866) 801 6184 (24 hours).


[1] Whittle, Sarah et al. “Prefrontal And Amygdala Volumes Are Related To Adolescents’ Affective Behaviors During Parent–Adolescent Interactions”. Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences, vol 105, no. 9, 2008, pp. 3652-3657. Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences, Accessed 22 Aug 2022.

[2] Uktraumacouncil.Link, 2022,

[3] Lambert, Hilary K. et al. “Altered Development Of Hippocampus-Dependent Associative Learning Following Early-Life Adversity”. Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, vol 38, 2019, p. 100666. Elsevier BV, Accessed 22 Aug 2022.