How to Harness the Power of Neuroplasticity to Heal Childhood Trauma

The latest research highlights a profound truth: childhood trauma rewires the neural pathways in young brains. Early life adversities—such as neglect, abuse, and divorce—ignite a storm in the brain and body, leading to cognitive impairment, avoidance, emotional instability, and hypervigilance. These traumatic experiences teach the brain to prioritize protection over connection, disrupting the fundamental need for trust and safety in children and manifesting in various trauma-related symptoms.

Amidst this challenging reality, there is a beacon of hope. Cutting-edge research on neuroplasticity reveals that our brains possess an incredible capacity to change and adapt over time. Neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to learn and grow from our efforts and experiences, offers a promising avenue for healing. This revelation is especially significant for those grappling with the aftermath of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and other developmental traumas.

In this article, you will discover how to harness the power of neuroplasticity to heal childhood trauma. By actively engaging in neuroplasticity, we can reshape our beliefs and behaviors throughout our lives. This means that who we are today does not define who we will be in the future. To fully unlock the potential of neuroplasticity, we must commit to the continuous effort of building new neural pathways, one experience at a time. Join us on this transformative journey to understand how changing these pathways can lead to profound healing from developmental trauma.

A Metaphor for Understanding Neuroplasticity

To help illustrate this concept, I want you to think back to your childhood summers. Did you ever dig a channel in the sand at the beach for water to flow into? Or watch a stream of rainwater flow downhill? In this metaphor for understanding neural pathways, the water is your automatic stream of thoughts, your default beliefs, and how your brain thinks and functions without much effort. The channel is your neural pathway.

Neural pathways are established in early childhood based on our degree of safety and nurturing from parents and other caregivers.

The water (automatic thoughts) flow into the channel effortlessly without resistance. There is a symbiotic relationship between the water and the channel. These thoughts are effortless because they are your version of normal, even if what happened to you was very abnormal. The more water flows in that channel, the deeper and wider the channel (neural pathway) becomes. The automatic thoughts, even if they are distressing, are familiar, and that makes them feel natural. To our brain, what’s familiar is safe, even if it’s not healthy for us.

This water and channel metaphor can help us understand what happens in our brains when we repeatedly think and behave the same way. The more time we spend flowing our thoughts into an existing neural pathway, the deeper and more ingrained the pathway becomes. The deeper the pathway, the harder it is to flow our thoughts into a new channel.

What can we do?

From what I just described, you might think all we have to do is help the child “think positive” to create new pathways. However, that would be ineffective. We must take it further and help the child believe new thoughts. The only way a child can do that is with evidence that supports the new thoughts.

To override the original neural pathways for fear, the child must step out of the default flow of thoughts and build a new channel. They can do this with corrective emotional experiences (CEE).

CEE’s take place when a child expects an adult to harm them and, instead, is met with a different or opposite response.

When children expect harm and don’t receive it, their brains question their beliefs about adults. It’s our job to be so safe and trustworthy that the children begin to trust again. When children feel safe in relationships, their trauma responses diminish.

Over time, repeated CEEs can “rewire” the child’s brain. This is why we must wrap committed, loving, safe adults around children with trauma. We can help the child build new pathways of thought based on the compassionate caring of others! This is not just a nice idea but actually happens over time.

However, changing our brains’ neural pathways is not easy if early life adversity taught our brains that this world is unsafe.

Childhood abuse and neglect “wires” our brains to seek out threats and respond to them quickly instead of building relationships.

Fear-based behaviors are functional, serve the purpose of protecting us, and are often involuntary. It’s important not to shame children who are struggling with their behavior after trauma. This is an entirely normal reaction to abnormal and traumatic events. As a mother, I realize that challenging behaviors can be extremely frustrating, and it’s ok to forgive yourself for messing up sometimes. The real power is in how we repair our relationships with our children.

Our ways of thinking, emoting, and behaving are built from what we learned in early childhood. However, we now know neuroplasticity is maintained throughout our lifetime, and we can alter our internal paradigms with knowledge and effort. There is HOPE!

Watch this 3-minute video about how we can change our brains! You can use it to teach teens about neuroplasticity. This video is from the YouTube series All Connected: A Place for Belonging. I am one of the co-creators of season one and season two, along with an advisory team of 30 people with lived experience in the child welfare system.

As part of my consulting role, I helped write and design each video in this series. I LOVE this type of work. Please contact me if you want a subject matter expert in childhood trauma for your next big project.

All Connected is currently available for free, thanks to ConnectOurKids.org.

What’s New at BTTC?

BIG News!

Last week, I was featured on Parents.com in an article regarding 20 coping skills to teach children! With 74 million viewers on their website, this was a huge accomplishment for me. I’m grateful to have a voice for children’s mental health in this space.

In August, I’m headed to Michigan to facilitate an all-day workshop on recognizing and healing from birth trauma with the Michigan Organization on Adolescent Sexual Health. Preventing birth trauma needs our urgent attention as approximately 45% of birthing people in the U.S. report a traumatic birthing experience! As someone who experienced my own version of birth trauma, I will be sharing my personal story for the first time. The maternal mental health crisis in the U.S. is preventable. Birth workers, OBGYNs, and other providers should be trauma-informed and healing-centered in their work with parents. To learn more, check out this mind-blowing fact sheet from the Maternal Mental Health Leadership Alliance.

Trauma Champion of the Month

Over the last few years, Heather Proctor and the folks at WeHealUS.org have consistently supported me personally and professionally in the field of trauma-informed care and child abuse prevention. Heather is a relentless national advocate for children and, with the founding of WeHealUs, began a grassroots movement to make the United States trauma-informed and healing-centered.

If you don’t know her yet, you should! She is an incredible public speaker, business strategist, and marketing professional who deeply understands trauma and its impact on individuals, systems, and cultures.

WeHealUS hosts a national awareness campaign for Mental Health and Trauma Awareness Month each May. The campaign aims to amplify the voices of organizations that are doing great work in the field of mental health and trauma prevention/intervention. It is a public/private partnership that provides free resources, materials, and activities throughout the month of May to support local, state, and national organizations in their efforts to address mental health and trauma-related needs in communities.

While 2024’s campaign just ended, it’s never too early to plan for next year. It will be here quicker than we think. Please consider becoming a contributor to the 2025 campaign by contacting Heather Proctor to learn more.

Now Available on my New Website!

I opened a shop on my website!

You can now purchase the above 60-minute webinar for $29.99. In it, I teach participants how to recognize anxiety in children and the step-by-step process for playing the Worry Ball game.

We even demonstrate it for everyone watching.

This recording is currently on sale for the rest of June 2024.

Worry Ball is my favorite strategy for building resilience and confidence in children.

It’s the perfect tool for caregivers, counselors, therapists, and social workers. It’s also super FUN, which keeps the kids (and you) engaged.

Say “Worry Ball” in the comments to get the link to purchase!

This is a brand new adventure for me and my business. What do you think of me offering my webinar recordings for purchase? Yay or Nay?

My New Book is Coming Soon!

I’ll publish my second children’s book, Sullivan Goes to See Mama, this fall. It is a therapeutic story that helps children in care cope before, during, and after supervised visits. Please stay tuned to this newsletter for updates and launch party registration! P.S. – the above image is not the cover.

Contact me if you would like to schedule a reading event/book signing for your school or organization!

You can purchase my first children’s book, A Grandfamily for Sullivan: Coping Skills for Kinship Families, HERE.

Book of the Month

An image of the upcoming new book, Body and Brain Brilliance. By Lori Desaultels.

Dr. Lori Desaultels is at it again with another groundbreaking new book on supporting and healing the bodies and brains of children. Dr. Lori asked me to be an early reviewer of this book, and I highly recommend getting a copy if you work with children. The release date is planned for September 2024 and it will be available on her website and Amazon, just in time for back-to-school anxiety!

Quote of the Week

“The moment my mother said she couldn’t give me what I needed was the first time she became the parent I needed.”

– Tara Westover, Author of the book Educated

In Closing…

Thank you for your unwavering support of this Childhood Trauma Newsletter. I struggle to get it out consistently, but I hope you continue to find value in the resources I share. I wish you a peaceful summer as we brace ourselves for more uncertain times this fall. Soak in those moments of sunshine to hold onto for winter, and remember that after the darkness, there always comes the light.

If you like my mission and have products or services that align with my combined social media audience of 60K, let’s work together. I am looking for mutually beneficial opportunities and sponsors.

With hope, grief, and love,

Beth

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