Trauma and Emotions

Emotions work by orientating children and young people to what is about to come next.  For example, in the lead-up to a birthday party, children begin to feel excited.  The excitement prepares children for the intensity of the feelings they might have at the party and gives them a chance to practice managing some of that intensity. 

In the same way, emotions can act as an early warning signal to the brain to be wary about what is about to happen.  For example, as a child begins to feel the first threads of fear or confusion associated with hearing dad come home drunk, the child’s brain is alerted to pay even more attention to dad’s behavior.  Fear is an emotion that helps the child adapt to the escalation of threat that might arise as the father engages with his family when intoxicated.

Emotions are an internal barometer for children and young people which help them organise the way they respond to and engage with what is happening in their outside world.  Experiences of trauma damage or even break the child’s internal barometer that helps them evaluate the intensity of their experiences (Australian Childhood Foundation)

In a predictable world

Predictability becomes the key through which children manage to negotiate how they have their needs met in their social exchanges with parents, family and friends. Consistent, congruent and validating responses give children an effective template for organising their internal world.

In a non-predictable world

Traumatised children may experience inconsistent and frequently mis-attuned responses to the way they feel and behave. In unpredictable relationships, parents or carers may sometimes respond safely and supportively, then without warning, they may react negatively or aggressively.  Instead of validating and acknowledging a child’s feelings, an abusive parent or carer may escalate the child’s confusion or fear by responding aggressively or blaming the child for their behaviour.  There may also be confusion due to a parent or carer’s response differing due to substance misuse, mental health issues and their own trauma response patterns. In this context, there is no predictability. The child’s emotional world remains disorganised. 

Such complex developmental trauma significantly shapes the emotional storage and processing facilities of the brain-body systems of children and young people.

It destabilises the connecting bridge between the left and right hemispheres and means that traumatised children and young people don’t practice integrating their feelings with words that help them know and communicate their internal sensations.  This can lead to:

  • Poor Emotional Literacy of themselves and others
  • Diminished capacity for joy
  • Hyper-sensitive to trauma and sadness in others which means they often gravitate towards others like them
  • Struggle with empathy and seeing the consequences of their own behavior on others
  • Avoidance of emotions due to the pain and uncertainty they cause

Trauma experiences switches off the top down-brain circuits from the cortex that are responsible for regulating the intensity of emotional and sensory experiences stored and handled in the lower structures of the brain.  This can lead to young people being:

  • Unable to access the resources offered to them by their cortex as it matures i.e. the thinking part of their brain to calm themselves or regulate the strength of their feelings
  • Reliant on the capacity of adults who care for them to help clam, soothe and comfort them

Disconnecting from their own emotions and others

Emotions are also an important way of children learning how others are feeling and how to connect to others.  Through disconnecting from their own feelings, trauma also disconnects children from others. They then often feel different to others.

In particular, if trauma or stress occurs during the period of time when right hemisphere of the brain is more dominant in its growth, children and young people will experience difficulties with being able to read and interpret social cues of others.

  • They are more likely to perceive  many facial gestures as negative, critical or threatening
  • Social exchanges become experiences which add to their level of stress
  • Relationships are often experienced as disjointed and confusing
  • They have trouble reading social cues and then struggle to fit in
  • Connections are made with other young people with similar experiences


Further Resources