Trauma, Adolescence, and the Developing Brain

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Experiences of trauma are common among children, and possibly even more so among adolescents. Young people may experience different forms of abuse, violence, and accidents, or survive wars and disasters. 

The developmental stage of adolescence, when both the body and mind are rapidly changing, may leave young people especially vulnerable to the impact of trauma.

Research suggests that trauma can have a pervasive effect on adolescents’ brains and bodies, affecting the way they feel, react, and interact with others.

This blog explores the different ways that trauma may affect the adolescent brain, mind, body, and behaviours. It also outlines some of the treatments available for trauma that can support young people to recover and heal.

Understanding the Developing Brain

Adolescence may be the developmental stage with the second largest shift in behaviours and neurobiology, surpassed only by young people’s earliest years.

But young people do not enter adolescence with a fresh start or as a new beginning. Instead, the pathway of adolescent development depends partly on their childhood experiences.

Humans experience one of the slowest paces of brain development of all species. The brain continues to develop throughout adolescence, reaching full maturity during a young person’s mid-twenties.

This slow, extended period of development enables humans to react and change to their environment, adapting their behaviours, thinking patterns, and neurobiology to fit the world around them. When it goes well, this adaptivity helps people to function effectively in their environment and interact with themselves and others in sensitive, skilful ways.

On the other hand, the developing adolescent brain is also extremely vulnerable to events in their outer and inner world. The developing brain is not an immature version of the adult brain, but has specific characteristics important for growth and change.

For example, the brain is able to rearrange itself structurally and functionally to reflect its experience (neuroplasticity) and form new connections between different brain cells (synaptogenesis). 

This means that environmental conditions and events can have a big impact on the way a young person’s brain works. They affect the way adolescents understand and interact with the social environment and influence the development of complex behaviours, such as regulating their emotions, solving problems, reasoning, and understanding the mental states of others.

This adaptability – and vulnerability – means that traumatic events can have a pervasive and lasting effect on a young person’s thoughts and behaviours, affecting their relationships, thinking skills, memory, identity, and ability to care for themselves.

What Types of Trauma Could Children and Adolescents Experience?

Traumatic events are frightening, dangerous, or violent events that in some way threaten a person’s life or autonomy over their body.

For children and adolescents, witnessing a loved one experience a traumatic event can be traumatic, as their own sense of security depends on the security of their caregivers. 

Many different experiences can potentially be traumatic for children and adolescents. These include:

  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Psychological abuse and neglect
  • Natural disasters
  • Terrorism and violence
  • Community and school violence
  • Bullying and cyberbullying
  • War and displacement
  • Serious accidents or illnesses

Research suggests that experiences of trauma are in fact common among young people. About two-thirds of young people are affected by violence, war and terrorism, bullying, motor vehicle accidents, and neglect.

That means that understanding how trauma affects adolescents – and how young people can recover and heal from their experiences – is a priority for youth mental healthcare.

How Does Trauma Affect the Developing Adolescent Brain?

Living with past trauma or experiencing trauma during adolescence may have a different, and even greater, impact than experiencing trauma in adulthood. 

Experiences of trauma affect the way different regions of the brain develop and how the brain functions. Trauma may cause adolescents to have a stronger fear response and more difficulty regulating their emotions.

It can also turn the brain’s attention towards identifying threats in the environment to an unusual and often obstructive extent. Young people may develop hypervigilance, constantly scanning their surroundings for threats and danger.

Adolescents affected by trauma may also experience a repeated activation of the body’s stress response system. Triggers or reminders of a traumatic event may cause the body to switch into a ‘flight, fight, or freeze’ reaction.

During a stress reaction, the levels of cortisol (a stress hormone that contains an immune response) in the body increase. Persistent high cortisol levels, associated with childhood trauma, can harm a young person’s mental and physical health, affecting their immune system, mood, memory, and emotions.

Activation of the immune system can also affect biological pathways associated with depression, reducing levels of serotonin (a hormone involved in functions like mood, sleep, and healing) and damaging brain cells.

Consequently, adolescents who have experienced trauma may face challenges in trusting others, being independent, and taking initiative. They may experience cognitive, behavioural and social changes that lead to both internalising and externalising problems.

Internalising problems primarily affect a young person’s inner world, mood, and emotions. They may include symptoms like anxiety, depression, a loss of pleasure, and social withdrawal.

Externalising problems impact the way a young person interacts with other people and the surrounding world, such as aggressiveness, oppositional defiant disorder, and conduct disorder.

What Is the Relationship Between Trauma and Microbiome in the Gut?

The gut microbiome is the community of all the microorganisms – including bacteria, fungi, and viruses – that live in our digestive system. These microorganisms play an important role in our physical and mental health.

The gut microbiome is involved in producing essential hormones (like serotonin and dopamine) and making new brain cells. It plays a role in our stress responses, social learning, and reactions to fear. 

Research suggests that physical and emotional trauma in early life may damage the microbiome in the gut. Equally, previous trauma is associated with changes in the gut’s microorganisms and bacteria levels in the gut are linked to the brain’s reactions to emotional stimuli. Gastrointestinal problems, in turn, are associated with anxiety and other negative, inward-focused behaviours.

Consequently, the gut microbiome may play a mediating role in the relationship between trauma and its effects on adolescents’ emotions, moods, and other functions of the brain and body.

While more research is required, this understanding opens the possibility for trauma treatment that includes a focus on creating and maintaining healthy gut bacteria.

Treating Trauma in Young People

Experiences of trauma can have a big impact on adolescents and their development. However, trauma is treatable and adolescence brings with it opportunities for recovery and change.

While the adaptivity of the developing brain can make it vulnerable to the impact of trauma, it also has a positive side, as a window of possibility for resilience, recovery, and development. 

There are several evidence-based treatment approaches for the treatment of trauma. These include:

  • Cognitive-behavioural therapy
  • EDMR (eye-movement desensitisation and reprocessing therapy)
  • Somatic therapy
  • Child-parent psychotherapy

Some treatment approaches use a cognitive (or cognitive-behavioural) approach, working with young people to speak about their trauma in a safe environment, identify triggers, and understand how trauma may affect their behaviours today.

Young people may learn skills and coping mechanisms to manage the consequences of traumatic experiences and make positive adaptations to harmful thought patterns and behaviours.

Other approaches emphasise the physical consequences of trauma that may be ‘stored’ in the body through tension, hyperarousal, and other means.

Taking a mind-body perspective, these therapies emphasise the recovery of the mind and inner world through physical, bodily healing.

The Wave Clinic: Trauma-Focused Recovery Programs for Young People

The Wave Clinic offers specialist mental health support for adolescents and young adults from around the world.

Situated in Malaysia, our centre sets the global standard for youth mental healthcare, combining top-tier clinical care with education, social responsibility, inspiring experiences, and an international gap year.

We support young people to develop a secure sense of self, connect with their passions, and build fulfilling futures.

The Wave offers a trauma-focused, whole-person approach to recovery, addressing mental health disorders, co-occurring conditions, and underlying issues alongside one another.

We understand the impact of trauma on a young person’s internal world and external behaviours, sensitively addressing past experiences to encourage healing and growth.

If you’re interested in finding out more about our programs, get in touch today. We’re here to help.

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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