Health effects of traumatic stress on infants

In Rwanda we hear that children born after the genocide exhibit signs of trauma–even though they did not experience it firsthand. You could hypothesize a number of reasons for this:

  • Hearing of the stories of lost loved ones; being told that their neighbors were killers
  • Having peers in school stigmatize: “You are Hutu, you are a killer. You are Tutsi, you are a cockroach.”
  • Seeing pictures of genocide

Notice that all three have to do with the child’s internalization of trauma through their environment.

But what if their trauma began in utero and biologically altered their capacity to handle stress? Consider these words by Maggie Schauer (available to be seen in context here),

Exposure to significant stressors during sensitive developmental periods causes the brain to develop along a stress-responsive pathway. The brain and mind become organized in a way to facilitate survival in a world of deprivation and danger, enhancing an individual’s capacity to rapidly and dramatically shift into an intense, angry, aggressive, fearful, or avoiding state when threatened. This pathway is costly and non-adaptive in peaceful environments. Babies born with a deformed stress-regulating system (HPA-a) experience higher and faster arousal peaks, longer intervals of crying and irritability, and impaired affect regulation (Sondergaard et al., 2003). (p. 398, emphasis mine)¹

How might this information help us better understand how “the sins of the fathers” (or whoever is the abusive individuals or communities) extend beyond primary victims to those victim’s children? How might this help us train survivors to understand what might be happening in their children and support parenting strategies that will encourage healing. Might it also help survivors to feel less guilty for the struggles of their children? Survivors don’t ask to be abused and can’t help the impact on their children while in utero.

Now, not every child with a “deformed stress regulating system” is that way due to the mother’s stress. We just don’t know why one child has a good stress regulation system and why another does not. But we can say that those whose stress regulation seems broken (or different) likely need different parenting strategies and a different paradigm in understanding volition (will) when it comes to their outbursts.

 ¹ Schauer, M., & Schauer, E. (2010). Trauma-focused public mental-health interventions: A paradigm shift in humanitarian assistance and aid work. In E. Martz (ed.) Trauma Rehabilitation after War and Conflict (pp. 389-428). Springer

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Filed under counseling, counseling science, Psychology, Uncategorized

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