Developmental trauma, which refers to chronic and repeated exposure to stressful or traumatic experiences during childhood, can have significant impacts on the development of various cognitive and behavioral processes, including executive functioning. Researchers have noted that neglect can be more damaging than violence to a child’s brain. The need for attunement and attachment overrides every other need for survival in an infant.
ADHD, conduct disorders, anxiety, and other mental health disorders all have marked limitations in executive functioning, it’s important to look at the possible causes before just treating symptoms. We think of trauma as “abuse” or a near death experience, but for a baby, or a child, unpredictability, disconnection with a caregiver, and too much alone-time can all build up to a lack of safety. Trauma can be most simply defined as too much too soon, or too much for too long. It’s not always what you would expect a “traumatic experience” to be. Kids need to be connected to their parents and caregivers, they need to be accepted by them, and experience shared emotional regulation. Executive functioning is part of an overall developmental process, and is interrupted when a child senses that they are not safe, or that they are alone. We can’t learn and develop properly if we don’t feel safe.
Here are some examples of children’s needs for connection and how you can help your child feel safe.
Executive functioning refers to a set of cognitive processes that allow individuals to plan, organize, regulate emotions and behavior, and make decisions. It includes skills such as working memory, attention, cognitive flexibility, and inhibitory control.
Studies have shown that developmental trauma can negatively impact executive functioning in several ways, many of which are symptoms of the “disorders” frequently diagnosed. For example:
- Working memory: Individuals who have experienced developmental trauma may have difficulty with working memory, which is the ability to hold information in the mind for a short period of time. This can lead to difficulties with learning, problem-solving, and completing tasks.
- Attention: Trauma can also impact attention, making it difficult for individuals to sustain focus or shift their attention between tasks or stimuli. This can lead to difficulties with concentration and distractibility.
- Inhibitory control: Trauma can impact inhibitory control, which is the ability to suppress impulses and regulate behavior. This can lead to difficulties with impulsivity, emotional regulation, and self-control.
- Cognitive flexibility: Trauma can also impact cognitive flexibility, which is the ability to switch between different tasks or strategies. This can lead to difficulties with adapting to new situations or changing plans.
Chronic stress has significant and long-lasting impacts on executive functioning, We are often too quick to diagnose disorders, but when we do that, we’re really only labeling the symptoms and missing the root cause.
You can begin to increase the amount of safety for your child (and whole family) immediately with just one change:
Spend 15 minutes engaging with your child without critique, teaching, judgement, or giving advice every day. If you can’t do 15, start with 5 minutes and work your way up. Here are some tips to get started.
- Engage with them on their level, go to them when they’re playing and ask if you can play, too. Or, if they are watching something, ask if you can join them. Ask them to tell you about their favorite characters, plot lines, or literally anything going on.
- You can even start by saying something weird, like “what if that plant could fly?” Let them continue the story and keep it going with them.
- Keep it casual. This doesn’t have to be a planned out thing, you’re just looking for connected time where you’re not focused on what’s next, or changing the child’s behavior, or fixing anything, you’re just experiencing your child as a human with ideas, thoughts and feelings.