Understanding the

Science of Trauma

Studies show that an essential ingredient for a child’s resilience is a secure relationship between the child and a caring adult who loves them.

Defining Childhood Stress

Traumatic events can lead to child traumatic stress.

Children who have witnessed traumatic events – such as domestic violence, shootings or even fighting – can develop traumatic stress that in time can impact their physical and emotional health.

Child traumatic stress is defined by The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) as stress that “occurs when a child experiences an intense event that threatens or causes harm to his or her emotional and physical wellbeing”[1]. 

Adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, are types of events or experiences that can cause traumatic stress. They may be direct, where a child is a victim, or indirect, where a child is a witness. Types of ACEs may include physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, exposure to domestic violence, mental illness, parental separation or divorce, or an incarceration of a household member. 

Children who suffer from child traumatic stress as a result of exposure to one or more forms of violence, including ACEs, other trauma, and post-traumatic stress, may develop unhealthy responses that continue to affect their daily lives long after the traumatic events have ended.

Toxic Stress

Continued activation of a child's stress response can lead to toxic stress.

Continued direct or indirect exposure to traumatic stress and Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) activates a child’s “fight or flight” stress response system, causing a release of chemicals and stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, and an increase in heart rate and blood pressure.

If the stress is relieved, as when a child receives comfort and support from an adult, the stress response system can return to normal. However, prolonged activation of a child’s stress response system from exposure to traumatic stress can cause damage that can lead to toxic stress. [1]

The more children are exposed to traumatic stress, the more neural connections are created in regions of the brain involving fear, anxiety, and impulsiveness, and under-produced in regions involving reasoning, planning, and behavior control.[2] Ongoing exposure can also lead to a chronic “wear and tear” effect on multiple organ systems that lead to long-term behavioral and physiological disorders such as depression, drug abuse, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, or stroke [3].

A child's brain is malleable and supportive adults can help to prevent or reverse damage.

Evidence of how exposure to traumatic and toxic stress and violence can negatively impact a child’s life is overwhelming.

Fostering stable, supportive relationships can have life-long benefits for a child’s learning, behavior, and overall health. Science and research have repeatedly shown that a consistently caring adult in the life of a child is one of the most important protective factors towards helping the child heal and build resilience.

The Power of a

Caring & Consistent Adult

As a teacher, a coach, a counselor, or a healthcare provider, you’ve dedicated your life to making a difference. Whether you’re involved with children daily or once in a while, you intuitively understand the important role you play in their safety, health, and well-being.

But what if a child has been exposed to traumatic stress and violence? What if the child suffers from symptoms of toxic stress? How do your daily gestures help them heal and respond to adversity? Does caring this deeply truly matter? Is there a way to do more?

The short answer, based on science, is yes.


Children are able to develop a resilience to adversity.

Recent studies have shown that despite serious adversity, because the young brain is malleable, or “plastic,” with help, many children can have unexpected positive outcomes. The studies have further shed light on the influence of context, social environment, and genetic differences on the developing brains of children[1].

Children who do well and thrive in the face of adversity demonstrate a level of resilience that helps them grow up to be productive citizens. As explained in the video, resilience is “a person’s ability to adapt successfully to acute stress, trauma, and more chronic forms of adversity.” Resilience, however, is not necessarily innate but instead can be developed in time through strategies that can alter brain structure and function at any age – from early childhood to adolescence to adulthood [1].

In light of the findings, strategies for having a loving, caring adult, using the five healing gestures, and other approaches discussed, become even more important.

Protect and Buffer

Supportive adults can help protect and buffer children from toxic stress.

One of the key strategies to building resilience in children is having at least one stable, caring and supportive relationship with a parent or an adult in their community such as a teacher, coach, or healthcare giver.

The presence of a caring adult protects and “buffers” children from toxic stress by helping to lower their elevated hormone levels. Reduced levels of hormones, in turn, reduce the impact of trauma, especially if the trauma is sustained for an extended period of time. Conversely, the lack of a secure relationship under similar circumstances can lead to severe stress response and toxic stress [2].

Caring, supportive adults can also help children heal and build resilience by teaching them self-regulation and executive functions that can strengthen their adaptive skills. By preparing them to “think, plan, and do” adults help children manage difficult circumstances, gain control, and ultimately make healthy decisions. Acknowledging their faith and cultural traditions can help ground them as they navigate the decisions before them.

Caring, consistent adults can make a difference in a child’s life

Every time you connect with a child to talk and listen to them, comfort and celebrate with them, or inspire and collaborate with them, you help build a “toolkit” – with calming, self-help strategies and adaptive skills – that they can access when faced with adversity. 

By being the committed and supportive parent, teacher, caregiver, or other adult, you can help children build resilience to adversity and child traumatic stress.

Consistently practicing and encouraging peers to practice the five Changing Minds gestures through your daily interactions can have a profoundly positive affect on children. 

You have the power to physically change the development of their brains and to help them heal and thrive.