Trauma affects the child's brain negatively by making the brain's alarm system overactive, while the degree of care a child receives to deal with the fear reactions affects the brain's regulatory system. 

 Image: Dreamstime (with licence)

Psychologist Dag Nordanger explains why the daily care experiences that build children's regulatory system must always be the foundation in helping children who have experienced trauma. 


The brain is use-dependent

Psychologist Dag Nordanger explains: 

- Today we know that the brain is use-dependent. That is, the parts of the brain that are stimulated will develop, while the parts of the brain that are not stimulated will not develop, at least not to the same degree. What I intend to say something about now is how stimulation in the form of traumatic stress in general and developmental trauma in particular, helps to shape a child's brain. 

He explains how certain brain structures are particularly sensitive to being affected by stress and trauma: 

- The amygdala is the brain's alarm center. It is very good at detecting potential threats in our environment, and when it does, it sends a signal to the adrenal glands, which secrete stress hormones and which enables us to resist this threat. 

- The hippocampus is, to put it simply, the brain's experience archive. Here, our experiences are stored so that we are able to assess new situations on the basis of things we have experienced before.  

- The prefrontal cortex is the most modern part of the brain. Among other things, it helps us to understand our own reactions and others' reactions on the basis of the social context of which we are a part. 


An alarm system and a control system

There is an ever so small surprise in the original video from Dag Nordanger (see video link at the bottom of this page), and the point is to easily illustrate how the different parts of the brain work together. Dag Nordanger explains that in the face of potential threats, it only takes a few hundred milliseconds before the amygdala picks up the possible threat and sends signals on, which puts the body in fight-flight or alarm mode. 

In the next wave, after the amygdala has set in motion the body's alarm system, the signals are passed on to the other parts of the brain for an assessment. The question that the brain is trying to decide is whether the possible threat was a real danger, or whether it was a false alarm. 

The prefrontal cortex (thinking brain) plays an important role in this assessment, and if the thinking brain concludes that it was a false alarm, it is notified back to the alarm area to regulate the alarm.

- In that way, you can say that the brain has an alarm system and a regulation system, explains psychologist Dag Nordanger.


Care builds the regulatory system

He explains that when we are exposed to real life-threatening situations, this contributes to sensitizing the brain's alarm system.  

- Then it takes less time before the alarm goes off, and most people go through a period of anxiety in the body for something similar to happen again. 

Young children not only have an undeveloped control system, but also a very sensitive alarm system. The alarm can be activated by various stimuli that are too intense, movements that are too abrupt, or different types of bodily discomfort that are unknown and thus scary for the children.

- The good thing is that when the caregiver intervenes, figures out what this is about, and manages to regulate the stress level down, then you make connections between these regulatory structures and the alarm system, and you build and develop the child's regulation system, according to the psychologist.

- So you can say that sensitive care experiences affect the same neural system that traumatic loads do, only with the exact opposite sign. 


Developmental trauma harms the brain in two separate systems

Dag Nordanger emphasizes the seriousness of the children who experience so-called developmental trauma. It is doubly negative when children are both exposed to traumatic stress and in addition do not receive help to regulate their alarm reactions, and he then refers especially to children who experience and violence and abuse in their close relationships.

- Children who have been in such a situation over time will often have a hypersensitive alarm system due to the constant threat they have lived under, and at the same time an underdeveloped regulatory system because they have been left to themselves to deal with their fear reactions. 

- The consequence is that they very easily end up in an alarm state with intense affect, and at the same time they are easily stuck in this affect because they lack the neural preconditions for regulating themselves back. 

He concludes by pointing out that the traumatized children's difficulties should therefore first and foremost be understood as regulation difficulties, and that this shows why the daily care experiences that build the children's regulation system must always be the foundation in helping these children.