Show anyone Dr. Nadine Burke’s TedX talk on How childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime,” and most people will say yes, that intrinsically makes sense. Exposure to trauma changes cortisol levels in the brain which directly impacts a child’s health. But what do we really mean when we say trauma? Beyond immediate trauma (physical or sexual abuse) and emotional trauma (the loss of a parent or loved one), what kinds of things can impact our children in traumatic ways?

The ACE test, which measures “Adverse Childhood Experiences,” states that trauma can involve any of the following:

  • Abuse
  • Physical
  • Emotional
  • Sexual
  • Neglect
  • Household Dysfunction
  • Mental illness
  • Incarcerated relative
  • Mother treated violently
  • Substance abuse
  • Divorce

Individuals with higher ACE scores are more likely to experience significant, damaging health effects such as diabetes, broken bones, heart disease, cancer, and strokes. How? Prolonged exposure to toxic stress can cause dysregulation in the HPA Axis, decreased hippocampal volume, and disruption in the amygdala to ventromedial PFC pathway. These can lead to anxiety, depression and impaired learning and memory, among other things.

Children can begin to present symptoms of traumatic, chronic stress when they are quite young. An inability to focus, problems making decisions, and fear and mistrust can be some signs. Others, as Dr. Burke outlines in her book, The Deepest Well, are much more significant – one of her young patients physically stopped growing because of the traumatic stress he experienced.

While the aim is to prevent trauma, we also must look at how to treat it. What can we do to make sure children who have experienced trauma have the help they need? Dr. Burke advocates for a communitywide, trauma-informed care method. This is where primary care doctors, mental health clinicians, parenting coaches, legal aid, early childhood educators, and many others team up to help address trauma in a comprehensive way. A collective impact model, it relies on the dedicated teamwork of a group of social services organizations.

There is much emphasis on providing parents of young children with enhanced services. Services can include Healthy Start parent check-ins, Early Learning Coalition scholarships, WIC and nutritional assistance, as well as access to legal aid to address housing, financial stability, and family law issues. These supports help parents ensure they are getting the support they need to create stable, safe environments for their children. They equip families to combat chronic stress and change children’s lives.

How to become a trauma informed organization:

For more information about ACEs and chronic stress:

Dr. Burke’s TedX talk:

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Chelsea Wait is the Resource Development Specialist with Gulfcoast Legal Services.