Many individuals in adulthood wonder why they struggle with mental illness or why their children do when there is no family history of depression, anxiety, ADHD, etc. Some would also argue their families or themselves have never been victims of what they would consider trauma. The definition of trauma has been misconstrued as associated with neglect in the home or something seen on the news like DCFS uncovering some child abuse ring. The truth is, when some mental health practitioners ask about trauma, we view specific stressors as one event in a set of many that could have impacted your child’s neural pathways. What is now understood in the evolving field of neurodevelopmental studies and the field of psychology is the impact certain events have on a child’s development.
Intergenerational trauma is not just social frameworks carried from your great-grandparents to your grandparents, your parents, and then you. Although it does influence how you cope and emotionally regulate, there is a hidden secret within your smallest of cells, your DNA. Intergenerational trauma understands that the trauma of your ancestors could shift your DNA sequences to predispose you to issues in your immune system, cardiovascular system, nervous system, etc. It’s crazy to think that your great-great grandmother’s struggles could have impacted your health now, but it is possible. Apart from this knowledge, we also have to think of epigenetic changes you possibly had on your child, which could have been influenced by potential stressors like multiple moves, and the death of loved ones, all can alter the development of your child. These stressors are experienced even after birth through emergency procedures, accidents, and even letting a baby “cry it out” in infancy.
We don’t view this as a form of judgment or a way to point fingers; the positive news is that a child’s neural pathways are malleable. The brain undergoes what we call neural plasticity, which allows a child to learn faster than those of us over the age of 25. Although childhood adverse experiences can cause mental illness, treatment can still benefit anyone in any life. Now, it is not to say that learning how to restructure whole relationship associations and how to shift how we deal with stress is as easy as when our brain is like play-doh when we are young, but it is nevertheless still worthy of hope and effort.
Neurodevelopmental information is essential as it can help you understand the correlation between our ailments and the stressors experienced in each developmental stage. When understanding how our brain develops, we see that it grows at different times. Our reptilian part of our brain (amygdala) is formed early on in an embryo which is evolutionarily important to any animal. The amygdala is in charge of our need to fight or flight in the face of threat; if your baby is in the second trimester and you encounter an accident, this part could have been underdeveloped because that is when it is mainly formed. This same premise follows each piece of our brain; our cerebellum more properly develops in the third trimester, and this controls our motor function, so again, if a stressor is faced during this period, perhaps your child now struggles with pinching or grabbing.
Each of these neurons and neural connections impacts how our brain is wired and connects; neurodevelopment acknowledges how some symptoms or body issues can be resolved with practice in restructuring those pathways. Below is an image from Dr. Bruce Perry’s lessons in neurosequential trauma in the brain. As you can see, specific brain parts account for different parts of our bodies. Starting from the most basic at the bottom to our neocortex, which differentiates us from alligators, is why we humans have evolved up to this point.
So now that we understand a bit more about the brain and how it influences our bodies, let’s talk about how to help yourself or your child. Although this work should be done with professionals and can be employed using various therapeutic methods, we can discuss the relevance of treatment modalities. Using the insight of Dr. Bruce Perry, we can also establish that we can only work effectively if we first address the lower parts of the brain with dysfunction. To figure out where your child lies developmentally, it is essential to seek help from a professional like a psychologist who has the knowledge and tools to uncover it. Some therapists can also access this information and are trained in the NMT metric. Some examples of practical activities depending on the level of functioning include:
Sensory Integration: includes healing touch/massage (hand, neck, back), sand and water tables, jumping on a trampoline, swinging, walking or running, yoga, swimming, or Martial Arts.
Self-Regulation: proprioceptive OT activities such as weighted vests or blankets, isometric exercises, breathing techniques, improving sleep hygiene/building in bedtime rituals, music and movement activities, or animal-assisted therapy.
Relational: dyadic play with a peer and participation in small group activities.
Cognitive: storytelling, drama/theater, art therapy, writing or journaling, and cognitive behavioral therapy. (From Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics: Clinical Practice Tools by Dr. Bruce Perry).
These examples start from the lower parts of the brain to the higher stakes; if a child is unable to self-regulate during activating events, it would be tough to have them be able to communicate what they need. This is because the connection between the amygdala and cortex is dysfunctional; the cortex is the part in charge of rational thought.
If you are interested in learning more about NMT, I highly recommend the book by Dr. Bruce Perry, The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog. Also, if trauma is a part of your history, feel free to seek trauma-informed practitioners. If you are interested in having your child or teen work with me, I took the NMT course in my Master’s program and have access to the resources and testing metrics used. Feel free to give the practice a call, and we can set something up.
By: Jay Alvarez, MSW