My class curriculum includes considerable time spent on trauma-informed care and helping my prospective adoptive families succeed in parenting children who have suffered abuse or neglect. I use the example of a Bear in the Woods (at the 8-minute mark in this Ted Talk video on Childhood Trauma by Dr. Nadine Burke Harris).
Significant damage to the emotional and physical health of children who are exposed to high levels of adversity/trauma occurs over time (chronic trauma). They are more likely to engage in high-risk behavior, and to develop heart disease or cancer. Our brains have a stress response system, in the hypothalamic and adrenal glands, that governs our fight or flight response in a situation. Imagine you’re walking in the forest and you see a bear. Immediately, your brain sends a response to your adrenal glands: Release stress hormones! Adrenal! Cortisol! Your heart starts to pound, your pupils dilate, your airways open up, and you are ready to either fight that bear or run from that bear! And that is wonderful, if you are in the forest, with a bear. The problem is what happens when the bear comes home every night, in the form of domestic violence, or physical abuse, or molestation. This system is activated over and over and over again, and it goes from being life-saving to health damaging. Children are especially sensitive to this repeated stress-activation, because their brains and bodies are just developing. High doses of adversity affect their brain structure and function, their developing immune systems and hormonal systems.