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The Impact of Trauma on Children's Development

Articles produced by Bruce Perry and other professionals about the impact of trauma on neurological and other aspects of development, as well as links with regard to Foetal Alcohol Syndrome.

Dr Bruce Perry is a child psychiatrist and a founder of the Child Trauma Academy whose work focuses on the long-term effects of trauma on the developing brain of the child.  Perry states that "without understanding the basic principles of how the brain develops and changes, one cannot expect to design and implement effective interventions." (Perry, 2008)  Understanding the effects of abuse and neglect on children during their formative years helps to inform the ways in which we need to work with these children in order to facilitate their recovery, and maximise their opportunities to fulfil their potential. Perry refers to his approach as the Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics.


Most of the organisational development of the human brain takes place within the first four years of life.  The more primitive parts of the brain develop first, with the parts controlling more sophisticated functioning developing later.  In children who have experienced early maltreatment and trauma, the effect on the developing brain and its subsequent ability to function is severely impacted.  These effects can be global in nature, ranging from basic functions such as self-regulation and attention, to higher functions such as language, thought and memory.  


Creating a safe, predictable and nurturing environment is the first step in helping children to begin to recover from trauma.  Understanding the nature of the trauma that a particular child has experienced, as well as the age of the child when it occurred (e.g. whether from birth, or during a particular time period) can help to inform the individual plan relating to that child, and the kind of care and interventions that are likely to prove most effective.  For an excellent and accessible introduction to the development of the human brain, and how trauma can affect individual children, The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog (Perry & Szalavitz, 2006)


The Child Welfare Information Gateway have produced an excellent introductory overview to the subject of Understanding the Effects of Maltreatment on Early Brain Development, and have a number of other interesting articles regarding abuse and neglect, and foster care.

The impact of severe neglect on the brain of a 3 year old child.

Effect of Neglect on the Developing Brai
Severe Neglect

On the left is the CT scan of a healthy 3 year old with an average head size.  On the right is the CT scan of a severely neglected 3 year old.  It can be seen that the neglected child's brain is significantly smaller than average and has abnormal development of the cortex.  This image is from a study conducted by a team of researchers from the Child Trauma Academy, led by Dr Bruce Perry.  

Foetal Alcohol Syndrome

The image on the right demonstrates the effects of Foetal Alcohol Syndrome on the brain of a six week old baby.  On the left is the brain of a healthy six week old baby of average size, and on the right the brain of a six week old baby with FAS.  Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders bring with them a whole range of difficulties for children, and it is thought that as many as 80% of children in the looked after system are affected by FASD.  In conjunction with developmental trauma, FASD makes it even harder to help children to recover from trauma and to fulfil their full potential.

The effects of Foetal Alcohol Syndrome on the brain of a six week old baby

6 week old FAS brain.jpg

A number of academic studies have consistently cited that as many as 78 - 80% of children in care could be affected by FASD (e.g. May et al 1983; Streissguth et al 1985; Stratton, Howe & Battaglia 1996; Astley 2006).


FASD is an area in which our staff and foster carers have begun to attend training and acquire specialist knowledge.  Useful links include the FASD TrustFAS Aware UK, and NOFAS UK.   

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