The life long impact of Trauma on Children

A recent study has made a strong correlation between childhood trauma and life long social, emotional and health outcomes. Exposure to early adversity affects brain development, and leads to a greater likelihood of engaging in high risk behaviours and developing serious health conditions such as heart disease and cancer.

This type of childhood trauma is severe and pervasive, but would include many of the situations I see in my work with separated families including
• Physical, emotional and sexual abuse
• Physical or emotional neglect
• Parental mental health issues
• Substance dependence
• Incarceration
• Separation and/or divorce, and
• Family violence.

High doses of this kind of adversity can impact on brain development, the immune system, the hormonal system, and the way that DNA is read and transcribed.

The Study

The research involved 1000 adults who were asked to reflect back on their childhood experiences, and provide information regarding their health and circumstances to ascertain whether any of these factors described as “Adverse Childhood Experiences“ (ACEs) were present during their childhood. The results established that the higher the number of ACEs, the worse the health outcome.

Outcome of the study

67% of the population had at least one ACE. 12.6 % of the population had 4 or more ACEs. Where there were four or more ACEs, this indicated a relative risk of twice the usual rate of pulmonary disease, twice the rate of hepatitis, four and a half times the rate of depression and 12 times the rate of suicidality. Seven or more ACEs correlated with a lifetime risk of three times the rate of lung cancer and three and a half times the rate of heart disease.


In very young children, exposure to adversity results in a significant impact on brain development.
• The pleasure and reward centre of the brain is affected and can lead to addiction later in life
• The prefrontal cortex is inhibited impacting on impulse control, executive functioning, both critical for learning;
• The amygdala is also affected which is the brain’s fear response centre. Repeated activation of this can turn what should be adaptive and life saving behavior into maladaptive and health damaging behavior. Children are especially sensitive to this as their brain is developing and it can result in high risk behavior.


Family Violence is an important topic in our society at this time. This study shows that current discussion is not yet sophisticated enough to provide the understanding necessary to protect the most vulnerable- our children.
1. Screening needs to be undertaken by relevant professionals, most notably General Practitioners, Paediatricians, Lawyers and Therapists, who have families presenting to them with these issues.
2. A multidisciplinary team approach needs to be developed to reduce the adversity being experienced by these children.
3. There needs to be an intense education programme so that parents understand the need to put their children’s needs ahead of their own, and provide the protection they so desperately need.
4. All professionals working in any capacity with families at a time of crisis need to tailor their care and support to recognize these factors.


An easy way to access this information is to listen to the TEDMED talk by Dr Nadine Burke Harriss at:

Her presentation is compelling, and explains why this issue should be the moist significant social issue of our time.

The Australian Government has a website that deals with these issues.

This is a great place to start to explore these matters. There is a newsletter to subscribe to, articles for greater understanding, research papers, and even online training. This is a topic that all professionals working with families should learn more about. If you would like to establish a dialogue to explore this further contact me at Creative Family Law Solutions.

The study can be found at


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