Hurting Children


by: T J Price, Psy D; Shawna Roberts, M S; & Lynne Battey, PhD

[This article was written for professionals and first published in the Colorado Interdisciplinary Committee’s Newsletter, 2005, Volume 7, No. 1]

Abuse and neglect in the first years of life have a particularly pervasive impact . . . [it is] the time when the genetic, organic, and neurochemical foundations for impulse control are being created. It is also the time when the capacities for rational thinking and sensitivity to other people are being rooted – or not – in the child’s personality. (Ghosts from the Nursery, page 48; Karr-Morse, 1997)

Most of you reading this have experience working, either as attorneys or mental health professionals, for people in the midst of trauma, conflict and drastic life changes. We all know that people often do not make the best decisions about complex situations under those conditions. While some of this may not be new information, we hope this compilation will serve as a focusing lens for the children, who usually do not get much of a voice in the day-to-day legal arena, or even some parents’ decisions. This article will present three vitally important components necessary to consider when evaluating conflictual or chaotic experience in a child’s life. We write this in the hopes many people might be helped; from caregivers to the youngest child.

Following is a cursory review of what we know about children and trauma. First we will examine the phenomena from different perspectives, including developmental, physiological, and psychological concerns. We will conclude with comments pertinent to adults who are responsible for the welfare of children. As stated above, this essay will be a rather truncated review of an enormous topic. A reference list is provided, should the reader be interested in further study.


Children, as the young living human potential for the future of our families and society, need our wisest and most caring decisions and behavior. How many ways do adults hurt young people? In many more ways than are intended. Our culture, and society in general, has been changing at a very rapid pace, especially technologically. Weapons of war become more devastating every decade, many video games are battle grounds. People have not found a way to change their emotional nature fast enough to keep up. Dr. William Glasser (A Day with William Glasser, University of Denver, 4-15-99) has pointed out that we are carrying around the Central Nervous System and emotional responses of cavemen and cavewomen. We have not made much, if any, progress in human relationships. This is apparent in the higher divorce rate today, than of 30 years ago (Wheeler, 2004), and the amount of Domestic Violence that occurs. (Carlson, 1984) As caring adults, it is prudent, in light of the newest physiological information, to review our actions and their impact on the health of young people of this fast paced, rapidly changing world.

We would now like to review some of what we currently know about children and trauma, from different perspectives, and highlight relevant understanding of human Central Nervous System (CNS) development, then highlight the seriousness of the consequences of adults not providing a consistently healthy environment for children. It is easy to see that children get hurt when they are attacked by a gang, or if they jump into the middle of domestic altercation (to try to save a parent), and get knocked down, bloody, and have to go to the E.R. It is not as easy to see the very real hurt children suffer, when they are immersed in an environment full of conflict and emotional turmoil, without blatant criminal behavior, i.e., abuse. Even we, as professionals tend to grow somewhat jaded or tend to minimize, if we are repeatedly assessing primarily for the severity of trauma and injuries resulting from horrendous accidents or serious physical assault by another person.

1 – Developmental Concerns

Our physiological and psychological understanding of the effects of trauma on children has progressed immensely and continues to do so. In the not so distant past, an infant was seen as Tabula Rasa, a blank slate, and anything that happened around the child was believed to be integrated in a concrete way, like a photo. Children were expected to behave as small adults and were treated as property. (Karr-Morse & Wiley, 1997) Twentieth century scientists such as the Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget, as well as Austrian-born American, Erik Erikson, have educated us otherwise. There are developmental milestones and stages through which everyone must progress. These many developmental milestones present tasks that need to be successfully mastered in the process of maturing. As an example, at birth an infant is faced with experiencing him or her self as a separate being and not just part of or an extension of the primary caregiver. There is a need to begin to differentiate, which will actually be a life-long process. (Mahler, 1968) This task of differentiation in combination with the need to learn to trust the environment can be the foundation of a lifetime of healthy relationships. (Erickson, 1963) Children have many such developmental tasks to master.

2 – Physiological Concerns

Bruce Perry (1995, 2001), Robert Scaer (2001), Bessel Van der Kolk (Solomon & Siegel, 2003) and many others have researched the effects of early experiences on children using modern procedures and instruments. We know that early experiences actually change an individual’s brain. The type and magnitude of stimuli in our environment change our Central Nervous Systems – not just the chemical balance, not just a thought, but the number and connections of neurons, and the actual topography of the brain.

Their findings indicate that a young human CNS that experiences psychological trauma is dramatically changed – affecting development and personality. These early experiences shape basic patterns in the CNS that can result in tendencies throughout life. Some examples of these deeply entrenched and persistent tendencies (a little like programming) are: easily dissociating from reality, getting very physiologically aroused by novel experiences (which can be experienced as fear of anything new), avoiding reminders of scary situations, or lashing out at whatever or whomever is near whenever things are interpreted as the least bit threatening. (Perry, 1995) Later experiences are then overlaid and interpreted in light of the earlier CNS experiences (or neuronal firing patterns). It has also been found that human development can even be stopped or stalled with sufficient trauma. (Moore, 1990)

One aspect of early trauma is that the developing child experiences the adrenaline and other hormonal rush, the felt need to discharge this rush, and a strong biological as well as a psychological memory of the event. (Scaer, 2001) Violence in one’s home can negatively impact a “victim’s” development. (Moore, 2003 & James, 1996) Emotional reactions range from fear to anger, dissociation to guilt. Some children learn to withdraw and do not engage with others in healthy ways. Others exhibit an increasingly aggressive and violent approach to life. Many never again know an abiding sense of safety and security. (U.S. Attorney General, 1984)

As an example, early trauma can affect the individual’s ability to be able to assess the surrounding reality. Instead, he or she may dissociate and appear to be dreamy, or “ditzie”, or uncaring. Another way the individual can be affected is in his or her response to novel experiences. This response may be an increased physiological arousal that results in behavior that is commonly diagnosed as hyperactivity and may be medicated as such. Or the individual may avoid situations that remind him or her of the traumatic situation. It is fairly easy to discern that a child who was abused in a basement, as an example, will avoid basements and dark places. However, abuse sequelae that is less obvious is harder to pinpoint and the child may appear to be “simply oppositional”. A fairly common response in children who have been abused is defiance. The child will respond to limit setting or stern caregivers with a defiant attitude as a way of keeping the adult who is perceived by the child as a potential abuser at a distance. (James, 1996)

Obviously, experience results in a filter or “lens” through which the child sees his or her entire environment. Serious trauma disallows flexibility, expansion, and even normal growth. In the same way that it is said that if the only tool one has is a hammer, then all issues appear to be nails, the reaction patterns formed by trauma shape new experiences through the abuse-formed patterns of interpretations.

Bruce Perry’s work has revealed that the Central Nervous System Learns in a Use Dependent Way, a phrase loaded with meaning. (Perry, 2001) The brain is a wonderful learning instrument. It makes multiple and complex associations and connections. Associations and connections are made, not in theory, not always logically, but “in use”. For anything that is experienced as possibly life threatening, single exposure learning happens easily (such as touching a hot stove burner). This learning (or changing of the CNS) happens at a deep and persistent level, in the mid-brain and brain stem level, more than at the Neo-Cortex level. This means that anything that triggers the same neuronal network will trigger very strong and primitive reactions. Problem-solving, planning, and careful behavior results from a person’s activating and use of the Neo-Cortex – which is overpowered (essentially shut off) by activation of neuron networks (learning) at the mid-brain and brain stem level. In other words, when something triggers an association with past trauma, old, strong and persistent patterns fire in the primitive area of the CNS, which, of course, results in primitive behavior. “Our stark conclusion is that we need to do much more to ensure that child abuse does not happen in the first place, because once these key brain alterations occur, there may be no going back.” (Teicher, 2002)

3 – The Child’s Experience

Now, if a child’s reaction to trauma was due only to predictable Central Nervous System changes, things would be simpler. However, individuals bring unique genetic material and qualities into this world. An individual’s personal interpretation and reaction is shaped by many components, e.g., inherited characteristics, such as temperament; family/friend support system; physical health; environmental supports; previous history, etc. Beverly James, an authority in children’s issues and needs, teaches that childhood trauma occurs when an event is perceived by the child as: 1) scary (feelings of fear), 2) overwhelming, and 3) he or she feels helpless. (James, 1996) There is a growing body of research, which shows that children who “simply witness” domestic abuse are psychologically injured and their development can be negatively affected (it does not matter much who was the intended victim). A child often feel the horror and other emotions of their caregivers experiencing a life-threatening event and experience that as traumatic. If a child witnesses a caregiver lose all hope, then panic, the child loses the protective concept of “Mom and Dad (primary caregivers) can protect me. Life is O.K.” – a major loss for a young person. (James, 1996) Therefore, psychologically, it is not necessarily the event, but the perception, interpretation, and meaning of the event – for that person – that results in trauma. Individual children react differently to witnessing violence or narrowly escaping injury. From a Constructivist Psychology perspective, psychological trauma occurs because human beings are dynamic, self-organizing, meaning-making beings, in their current developmental stage, striving to make some sense of the world in stressful or unhealthy situations.


Modeling is a perfect example that people learn from simply being exposed to events or actions. This is highlighted by Albert Bandura’s famous series of Modeling experiments. (Bandura, 1964 & 1969; Steur, et al 1971) From that research we have come to understand that modeling is one of the most powerful ways to teach behavior. Modeling of violence results in more of the same. From a modeling perspective, the child learns early to use violence and/or coercion to gain a desired end (in the short-term), which scares and hurts others in the family. The more exposure, the more a person may accept any behavior as “normal”, familiar, or acceptable.


As adults we find various ways of addressing difficult situations. Certainly, as caretakers of children we need to address our own feelings of helplessness in the face of responsibility – both moral and legal responsibilities. If we are honest, people often use denial to make it through many types of discomforting situations (Sandler et al, 1985). Now, all denial is not pathological. However, denial becomes dysfunctional when it blinds us to important aspects of reality and we act in harmful ways. Historically, we can see how the adult generations have treated the young over the years; we find that parents treated children as their property through the 1800’s, historically used discipline that would be considered abuse today, and the medical profession did not even use anesthetic on newborns for major surgery until recently. (James, 1996)

Children Need Protection

There are probably few who would argue with the premise, the fact, that exposing children to the horrors of war hurts them psychologically as well as physically. War does not occur only on the battlefield. There is domestic war. We see this when people choose to stay together in a high conflict situation. They may be considering divorce or separation, or are vindictively staying around to make the life of their “significant other” Hell. We implore professionals to not ignore this (deny the reality) and let the young children involved remain and suffer the misery. It will dramatically and significantly affect children’s CNS, development, view of the world, and future relationships – therefore, the lives of many people around them. Caregivers, important people in a child’s life, who hate each other, or who treat each other very poorly – teach children that life is not to be respected, cared for, or valued.

It is evident that children need to be treated as young, developing, dynamic, intelligent human beings. Children’s Central Nervous (Learning) Systems are very sensitive, changeable and receptive to trauma – and to the long-term negative consequences. Children are hard-wired to pick up, mirror, and learn (make CNS associations) from important adults in their lives, and to sense and learn survival behaviors. It becomes graphically clear that we need to help parents/caregivers assess and make adjustments to set-up, and maintain, a home environment that will allow a child to grow into the most effective and healthy person he or she can be – without anything that could be traumatic.

“The brains of traumatized children develop as if the entire world is chaotic, unpredictable, violent, frightening and devoid of nurturance, and unfortunately, the systems that our society has developed to help those children often continue to fill their lives with neglect, unpredictability, fear, chaos, and most disturbingly, more violence.” (Perry, 1995)

Other “Caregivers”

We strongly recommend that professionals involved with children help the primary guardians understand that children can be traumatized if something around the child can be interpreted as seriously threatening, or triggers the same responses as past trauma. Once a person’s CNS has experienced – in effect learned – a strong trauma response, it has learned in a use dependent way. (Perry 1995) The primitive part of the CNS will likely reactivate in any subsequent circumstance that has similar characteristics to earlier trauma. This can include anything from weapons seen, being hit, and even hearing raised voices (maybe in argument, but not necessarily). The person will then act in a self-preservation mode, from a very primitive part of his/her being.

It has become clear that a child who witnesses situations that pose a threat to others important in his/her life (e.g., mother or father) can experience the same kind of effects, as if the child was the primary target/victim. It is imperative to help adults set up and provide healthy, non-emotionally conflictual early environments for their children.

In Colorado, adults who are separating/divorcing have choices. In order to protect children involved, they can choose Mediation, Arbitration, or now, Collaborative Family Law. In addition to the traditional adversarial approach to separation and divorce, these other choices can facilitate a more positive experience for the children. Guardians can be encouraged to “take the high road” to help the children affected by adult choices have an increased chance to grow up in an environment where (and therefore learn) people and life are valuable. Even if caregivers decide to take the adversarial route and contest aspects in a divorce court, professionals involved can help adults (making the decisions) consider what their actions are doing to their children, and facilitate a healthier “second chance” at life, after divorce, for everyone.

Therapeutically (and you do not have to be a mental health professional to be therapeutic), one thing we can do is model respectful and caring behavior, no matter how angry or inconsiderate another adult becomes. We have also found that helping people to understand and focus on the following Basic Personal Rights, and consistently integrate them into family life, can be therapeutic.

12 Basic Personal Rights

– – – – – – – – – – – –

  1. I have the right to be alive.
  2. I have the right to not be hurt by others.
  3. I have a right to my own possessions.
  4. I have the right to my own space.
  5. I have the right to have and express my feelings.
  6. I have the right to my own thoughts and opinions.
  7. I have the right to be treated with respect.
  8. I have the right to privacy.
  9. I have the right to ask for what I want.
  10. I have the right to make mistakes and be responsible for them.
  11. I have the right to be listened to.
  12. I have the right to learn to make choices.

Compiled and adapted by T J Price (2001 – 2006)

Whether you are an attorney, counselor, psychologist, psychiatrist, Special Advocate, supervised visitation worker, mediator, or fill another role in your interactions with adults and children, you may have an opportunity to be a “Caregiver” to young people caught up in a situation not of their choosing. Let us embrace such an opportunity.