When most of us think of childhood development, we think of babies learning to roll over, toddlers saying their first words, or kids learning to ride their bikes without training wheels. Most of us think about the big milestones but forget about the spectrum of growth that had to happen before those milestones could be reached.
Kids grow in so many different areas, the most commonly evaluated ones being physical growth, mental cognition, emotional development, social interaction, language acquisition, and motor skills. For a child to be able to speak their first word–“mama,” for example–they had to have developed up to a certain stage in several different areas. They would need physical growth for their muscles to function well enough to form a word, mental cognition to reasonably determine who “mama” is, social interaction in order to direct the word “mama” at her, and language acquisition (for obvious reasons).
There’s so much more that goes into a milestone than what we realize.
When a child goes through trauma, the various areas of growth become skewed, or unbalanced. Certain areas become overdeveloped while other areas remain underdeveloped because the trauma has stunted those areas.
One child I know personally completed a brain-mapping study last year, which let him and his family know exactly which areas of his brain are underdeveloped for his age. It also showed them about how old he was when that area of his brain stopped maturing. This young man endured a lot of trauma at the hands of his biological parents, and, as a result, has Reactive Attachment Disorder.
Just as his adoptive parents suspected, the area of his brain that controls social interactions stopped maturing around age three. This means that he interacts with his peers at school, he interacts in a way that’s similar to a preschooler. This aligns with the behavior they’ve witnessed in him, but it was comforting for them to see scientifically how it all shook out. They don’t feel crazy now because they can see the facts behind why he behaves the way he does.
A foster daughter we once had experienced underdeveloped language acquisition and mental cognition (she was two years behind her peers academically, even though her IQ was typical), but she had extremely overdeveloped motor skills and social abilities. She’d spent the first ten years of her life completely unattended–walked all over the city alone at night, ate cat food from a can because she couldn’t find food, stayed at a friend’s house for weeks at a time–which had forced her to develop really quickly in certain areas.
She could climb LITERALLY anything. She could figure out a way to do almost anything she wanted to do, even if it was a bit unconventional. She could cook on the stove, knew how to hotwire a car, could babysit a newborn without assistance, and understood how to manipulate adults into giving her free stuff. She was as capable as an adult in so many ways.
However, her emotional growth had been seriously stunted early in life, and I don’t know if she’ll ever catch up. She had almost no coping skills when she felt angry, sad, or embarrassed. And her fight or flight instincts? They were ALWAYS on. She was in survival mode 100% of the time, and when that happens, your brain is unable to focus on more menial tasks like staying calm, being kind, learning to share, or asking for help. All she knew how to do was fight, run, and figure things out.
She was also so used to not being comforted by adults that it was strange for her when she did get it. For the most part, she pretended to enjoy the comforting of adults so that she could get what she wanted out of them. Her relational skills were horribly lacking because she’d never been given the foundational building blocks.
Many children who’ve experienced sexual types of trauma go through puberty at an earlier age than what they would have otherwise. That’s an OVER-development of a growth area.
The number of ways childhood trauma fractures the brain and skews growth are probably innumerable, but the more time we spend with kids who’ve been in tough places, the more we can help them sort through the challenges and gifts they’ve been left with.