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Common Sources of Stress in Childhood

Although we often tend to think of childhood stress and trauma in terms of abuse by a caregiver or another significant adult, many things can be traumatic or challenge children’s developing stress and survival systems, for example:

  • Anything that threatens the love and care they need from their caregivers
  • The serious illness or death of a close friend or family member
  • The presence and effects of substance use disorders in the family, particularly dependence disorders
  • Serious illness or medical or dental procedures (including anesthesia, surgery, immobilization)
  • Accidental injuries or poisoning
  • Experiencing or witnessing violence or conflict in the home or community
  • Experiencing or witnessing a car crash
  • Natural disasters or terrorism
  • Violence or bullying at school
  • Racial, cultural, or religious prejudice and/or discrimination
  • The effects of poverty and hunger

It is easy to see how some parents who were traumatized in childhood have a hard time developing the skills to impart safety and nurturing to their children, and so “pass” vulnerability from generation to generation.  But there is also a growing recognition that cultural trauma—the effects of slavery, genocide, racism, subjugation by another culture, etc.—can be passed from one generation to the next (Eyerman, 2001).  For example, Eduardo Duran (2006) wrote of the long-term effects of the now-unimaginable treatment of Native American peoples at the hands of the white settlers and their government.  “This concept later became known as intergenerational trauma, historical trauma, and the Native American concept of soul wound.  These concepts all present the idea that when trauma is not dealt with in previous generations, it has to be dealt with in subsequent generations…there is a process whereby unresolved trauma becomes more severe each time it is passed on to a subsequent generation” (Duran, 2006, p. 16).


Ways of Mitigating Stress and Trauma:  Parents can help children by encouraging them to talk about what has happened, teaching them ways of self-soothing and creating safety, and helping them find meaning in events.  This would:

  • Activate the higher brain structures (e.g., hippocampus, anterior cingulate gyrus, prefrontal cortex)
  • Provide conscious memories to put the amygdala’s unconscious memories in perspective
  • Help them soothe and reason with the amygdala (experts in the field of trauma sometimes call this “talking to the amygdala”)

As noted in an earlier page, the brain also has two halves or hemispheres, each a mirror image of the other, but in charge of different functions.  Most of our responses to stress and threat take place in the right hemisphere.  The right hemisphere focuses on our unconscious memories.  It is involved in reward, punishment, and emotion, while the left hemisphere focuses more on logic and linear stories (what happened first, what happened next, etc.). 

When we try to make sense of our experiences—or tell the story from start to finish—our unconscious, emotional memories can be combined or “integrated” with the left hemisphere’s conscious memories and reasoning processes.  It helps the brain put things into perspective and helps the stress systems return to balance (Siegal, 1999).

Unfortunately, many parents and other significant adults in children’s lives have been raised to believe people are better off if they just forget what has happened.  Fear and/or loyalty may also keep children from talking about their experiences—or keep adults from listening and helping children work through their reactions.  So children’s memories stay trapped in the unconscious amygdala, which continues to trigger frightening images, strong emotions, and powerful stress chemicals and reactions.


Trauma in the Years that Follow:  Although the effects of stress and trauma in childhood often have deeper roots, the experience of trauma at any time before military service can also make people more vulnerable to stress when they deploy to the war zone.  For example, one large study that included 5,324 OIF/OEF troops found that the experience of having been assaulted before military service doubled the rates of post-combat PTSD symptoms in both women (22 percent rather than 10 percent) and men (12 percent rather than 6 percent)—even though none of the participants had PTSD before deployment (Smith et al., 2008).


Next: Sustaining Stress and Trauma in the Body

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The material on all of the Clinical Pages is taken directly from the draft version of Finding Balance After the War Zone:  Considerations in the Treatment of Post-Deployment Stress Effects, a manual under development for the Great Lakes Addiction Technology Transfer Center and Human Priorities.  This draft is copyright © 2008, Pamela Woll.  Reprint permission is universally granted, but attribution is requested.
Click here for References and Other Resources.
Click here to link to a PDF file of the current version of the clinician’s manual draft.
Click here to link to a PDF file of the accompanying booklet for veterans.

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