Impact of Trauma on Cognitive and Emotional Development

3 mins read

Trauma can be defined as a person’s emotional response to a distressing event such as an accident, death, natural disaster. Typically, such an event can cause denial and shock immediately after, whereas long-term impact includes flashbacks, panic attacks, and unpredictable emotional responses to certain situations.

Due to these reactions and symptoms, some people have difficulty continuing their adult lives normally. Moreover, a trauma in earlier years can fundamentally change the brain’s anatomy and development. The reason is that when an individual goes through trauma, their brain switches into a survival mode. This initial response often sticks through, making it difficult to change behaviors in later years. Hence, trauma can change the way a person feels, acts, and thinks for a very long time after the initial experience.

Trauma and Brain Functions

Trauma can impact your brain function on several levels. For example, it can affect your conscious decisions and your subconscious reaction to the events unfolding around you. Focusing on this phenomenon, researchers have conducted several studies that concluded that trauma affects three parts of the brain. It affects the emotional and instinctual center of the brain, known as the amygdala, the hippocampus responsible for controlling memory, and the prefrontal cortex responsible for the regulation of impulses and emotions.

Typically, when a child or teenager is reminded of a triggering and traumatic event, their amygdala goes into a state of overdrive. This can make them feel like they are experiencing the traumatic event all over again. Moreover, trauma can also affect the hippocampus, affecting the memory and making it difficult to distinguish between the past and present.

While these changes happen at a root level, and it may seem that the associated responses and behavioral patterns have become permanent, they are reversible through trauma counseling from a professional who is adept at handling patients who have gone through crisis and traumatic events.


Long-Term Effects of Trauma

1. Attachment

Children and teens who have gone through traumatic experiences often have difficulty developing and maintaining attachments. This aspect can cause troubles in their relationships and cause social isolation. They may also struggle with maintaining boundaries or showing empathy for others.

2. Physical health 

Trauma also affects the physical health of an individual and can lead to impaired sensorimotor development. Traumatized individuals also face more medical problems than others and can have somatic symptoms such as frequent headaches, dizziness, weakness, digestive issues, and chest pain. These individuals can also have coordination problems, impacting their balance, hand-eye coordination, handwriting skills, etc.

3. Emotional regulation 

A traumatized individual often has difficulty identifying their emotions and communicating their basic and emotional needs.

4. Dissociation 

Individuals also suffer from impaired memory, amnesia, or an altered state of consciousness.

5. Cognitive ability 

Trauma can affect a person’s ability to learn, focus, and understand new information. They may also face some language development issues and have trouble planning.


6. Self-concept

Trauma, especially abusive or sexual in nature, can cause significant body image issues, feeling of guilt, shame, and low self-esteem.

7. Behavioral control 

Children and teens who have experienced trauma can show aggressive behavior, be impulsive and have low self-esteem. They may also have bad sleeping and eating habits.

Impact of Trauma on Emotional Development 

Traumatic events can impact an individual’s emotional development in several ways. It can affect their emotional, social, psychological, and physical state. However, the impact of the trauma mainly depends on each individual’s tolerance level.

Typically, a traumatized child tends to fixate themselves at the cognitive and emotional level at which they experienced the trauma for the first time. Then, they tend to deal with the ongoing and new stresses of life at the emotional level they had when they experienced the trauma. This can lead to a fight-flight-freeze or fawn survival response, often resulting in dissociation or similar negative coping skills.

The developmental capacity of emotions is also disrupted or undermined by a traumatic experience. And children who have been exposed to chronic or acute trauma show symptoms of emotional irritability and struggle with anger management, aggression, mood swings, impulsivity, anxiety, and depression. Apart from that, trauma also impacts the child’s self-perception and can cause trust issues in them.


Apart from that, children and teenagers who experienced major or prolonged trauma at a young age tend to have a foreshortened sense of their future and the world. They expect life to be dangerous and hurtful, in which they think they won’t be able to survive. As a result, they tend to give up expectations and hopes for the future.

Moreover, one of the most devastating effects of trauma at an early age is that the person loses a sense of separate self. Their sense of self becomes fragmented because survival becomes their instinctual response in everyday activities and interactions. As a result, such children and teenagers find it difficult to explore new ideas, develop interests, or demonstrate healthy feelings.


There are so many adverse effects of trauma that can negatively impact a person’s behavioral and emotional responses. However, these responses and coping skills are reversible through careful counseling and treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT).

However, mental health awareness is extremely important to promote these therapies and treatment methods and reduce the stigma around counseling. If you know someone who has in the past or is currently dealing with a traumatic event, create a supportive and positive environment to help them heal and recover.