How Neuroscience can help us understand the impacts of stress and trauma on brain development


Experiencing stress or trauma at any age can have a detrimental effect on the brain, behaviour, mood, cognitive performance and much more. These detrimental effects are exacerbated if the stress and trauma is experienced early in life, particularly if the cause can be associated to a caregiver or close adult in a child’s life.1 Brain development during infancy and early childhood serves as the building blocks for future development, with disruption to this process by stress and trauma serving to reduce the brain’s ability to form the neural pathways needed for adaptive behaviour.2 Early life is when the brain is at its highest level of plasticity, a time when experiences can profoundly shape cognitive and social development, for better or worse.

What are stress and trauma?

Stress and trauma can be broken down into behavioural and physiological characteristics. Behaviourally, stress has been identified as any situation or stimuli that threaten to disrupt the body’s self-regulating process known as homeostasis.3 In this way, stress can be anything in an environment that changes or disrupts the way a person normally functions and can have a profound effect on an individual’s sense of self and the world around them. From a physiological standpoint, stress involves the activation of autonomic processes in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis that produce cortisol and other chemicals, inhibiting a person’s ability to optimally utilise their neural feedback systems.4 Trauma involves situations that are more negative and severe than stress and in many cases exceeds a person’s ability to cope with it using their regular mental resources.5 Traumatic events can be singular occurrences that have a profound effect on an individual’s development and can be notoriously difficult for a child’s brain to interpret rationally.

Stress and trauma’s impact on Brain Development

Exposure to stress, chronic stress and individual or prolonged traumatic experiences can alter children’s brains, causing long term effects in a number of neurological, social and emotional areas such as6:

Why do some children appear more resilient to stress and trauma than others?

Resilience is characterised by the ability to resist negative psychosocial effects from stress or trauma, almost like an active process that maintains personal stability in difficult circumstances. Michael Rutter, an early proponent of resilience theory in children describes it as “the young person doing well in some sense in spite of having experienced a form of stress which in the population as a whole is known to carry a substantial risk of an adverse outcome7

In the 1970s, the concept of invulnerable or stress-resistant children was a popularly floated idea that posited some children possess a mental disposition so tough that they are impervious to stress. 21st Century researchers understand that resilient children have been exposed to resources, support and ideas that have been able to support their cognitive development and promote internal stability. Three sets of factors have been identified by researchers: personal attributes of the children, aspects of their families, and characteristics of their wider social environments. Most of these attributes have been identified as being dependent on adults being in tune with the needs of children and providing opportunities over time for the child to develop these attributes.

How to build resilience in families

Life for any family includes ups and downs, challenges, and unexpected twists and turns in the road. A family’s ability to negotiate this journey depends on the skills they are working on along the way. There are certain skills and strategies that have been identified as important for the development of resilience. Some are internal skills we can build and develop, whilst others are external, which encompass the relationships in children’s lives. 

All children are capable of coping with stress and trauma and nurturing the skills required to work through life’s challenges. Resilience is not a quality you have or you don’t have, it is a skill that can be developed as they grow, learn and experience different situations and ideas. Life situations and obstacles such as being sick, getting bullied, moving away from friends, coping with loss and dealing with divorce can be mildly to intensely stressful to adults, but to children they can be all-consuming.

Many programs are available that help families and teachers to understand and identify the social and emotional needs of children and how they can foster an environment conducive to resilience development. If you want to learn how to enhance your understanding of the importance of interactions, connectedness and relationships in assisting children to develop resilience, understand how to talk to children when overwhelmed with emotion or being a family with helpful thinking, Pathways to Resilience offers a number of programs backed by science.

1Andersen, S. L., & Teicher, M. H. (2008). Stress, sensitive periods and maturational events in adolescent depression. Trends in Neuroscience, 31(4), 183–191
2PERRY, B.D., POLLARD, R.A., TOI, BLAKLEY, BAKER, W.L., & VIGILANTE, D. (2005). Childhood Trauma , the Neurobiology of Adaptation , and " Use-dependent " Development of the Brain : How " States " Become " Traits ".
3Diorio, D., Viau, V., & Meaney, M. J. (1993). The role of the medial prefrontal cortex (cingulate gyrus) in the regulation of hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal responses to stress. The Journal of Neuroscience, 13(9), 3839-3847.
4Sapolsky, Robert & C. Krey, Lewis & Mcewen, Bruce. (1986). Sapolsky RM, Krey LC, McEwen BS. The neuroendocrinology of stress and aging: the glucocorticoid cascade hypothesis. Endocr Rev 7: 284-301.
5Hubbard, J., Realmuto, G. M., Northwood, A. K., & Masten, A. S. (1995). Comorbidity of psychiatric diagnoses with posttraumatic stress disorder in survivors of childhood trauma. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 34(9), 1167-1173.
6Greeson, J.K., Briggs, E.C., Kisiel, C.L., Layne, C.M., Ake, G.S., Ko, S.J., Gerrity, E.T., Steinberg, A.M., Howard, M.L., Pynoos, R.S., & Fairbank, J.A. (2011). Complex trauma and mental health in children and adolescents placed in foster care: findings from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. Child welfare, 90 6, 91-108 .
7Rutter, M. (1981). Stress, coping and development: Some issues and some questions. Child Psychology & Psychiatry & Allied Disciplines, 22(4), 323-356.

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