Child Brain Development & Trauma

By Rachel Dorman, MS & Kacy Mixon, PhD, LMFT

Baby playing with developmental toys
[Flickr, Aiden happily playing by Mike Porcenaluk, CC BY-ND 2.0] Retrieved on September 23, 2015
A child’s brain is rapidly developing from birth through the first few years of age. In fact, during this time period the right brain is in a critical stage of development and is highly susceptible to negative impacts brought about by relational trauma [1]. Relational trauma typically involves experiencing family violence, sexual abuse, chronic illness or family separation [2]. Today’s post highlights the findings of Dr. Allen N. Schore, clinical faculty of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine. In his recently published work (2013) Dr. Schore discusses previous research regarding the impacts of relational trauma on children’s brain development and how children are able to regulate the stress of trauma.

Dr. Schore (2013) explains that a child’s right brain, including the limbic system  and cortical system, is rapidly growing during the first few years of life. Consistent caregiving is needed for a child to develop normal attachment which helps foster healthy right brain development. When a child endures relational trauma from the primary caregiver during these years there is a probability of impacting the child’s brain development.

Dr. Schore poses that trauma occurring between the caregiver and child ruptures the child’s attachment, causing the relationship to be unpredictable for the child. When relational traumas occur for children, one short-term effect that can be found is hyperarousal, or frantic distress. This can cause the brain to secrete a major stress hormone, corticotrophin-releasing factor (CRF) which leads to elevated heart rate, respiration, and crying followed by screaming. As the relational trauma continues to occur and a pattern is set, children tend to show signs of disassociation and hypo-arousal, (low arousal) which leads to children’s body’s shutting down metabolic activity and the heart rate decreasing. In addition, the child can become immobilized with a non-responsive stare. These stressful events leave an imprint on the stress-sensitive cortical and limbic regions of the brain, which can impact the child’s ability to regulate stress later in life.

Professionals working with military families can benefit from understanding the impacts of relational traumas on children’s brain development. It is critical to be aware of the signs and damaging impact of relational trauma in young children not only to advocate for healthy home environments but also to help prevent children’s exposure to future relational trauma. Knowing the risks and being able to identify a child in distress could have a lifelong impact on their brain development.


[1] Schore, A. (2013). Relational trauma, brain development, and dissociation. In Ford, J., & Courtois, C. (Eds.), Treating complex traumatic stress disorders in children and adolescents (3-23). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

[2] “Children and Relational Trauma.” (2004). Ackerman Institute for the Family. Retrieved February 13, 2014.

This post was written by Rachel Dorman, M.S. and Kacy Mixon, PhD, LMFT.  Both are members of the MFLN Family Development (FD) team which aims to support the development of professionals working with military families. Find out more about the Military Families Learning Network FD concentration on our website, on Facebook, on Twitter, YouTube, and on LinkedIn.

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