Studies show that children who experience childhood trauma, including physical, emotional or sexual abuse, can sustain lifelong, devastating impacts on their developing brain, especially when trauma happens in the home.

Matt Bennett, who is an author and trainer, spoke about adverse childhood experiences and children’s ability to thrive during the ECHO and Family Center Early Childhood Council Legislative Symposium on Thursday at the Abbey Events Center.

“The young child’s brain is programmed genetically to reach out for mom, for dad, for other people in the home for support or love, and if anger or hurt comes back, it devastates that young brain,” he said. “Also, neglect is so important. Nothing is more vulnerable in the animal kingdom than a newborn child.”

Bennett said when help and support are not available, or if a child goes to bed hungry, the young brain thinks it’s a life-or-death situation.

He said children who experience abuse potentially can develop cancer, lupus and audio-immune issues; they are 2.5 times more likely to fail a grade during their school years; it makes them more vulnerable to being hurt in the community; it raises their rate of experiencing addiction by five times; they’re 4,000 times more likely to inject drugs in their lifetime; they’re more likely to experience homelessness and to struggle socially and/or be in a domestic violence relationship; they’re more likely to struggle with unemployment; and they’re more likely to have an unintended pregnancy or develop an STD.

“One of the most tragic things about this thing that happens to children is it also threatens to take 20 years off their life expectancy,” Bennett said. “We know that kids that this happens to, especially repeatedly, have a life expectancy of only 60 years.”

Family disruptions — homelessness, untreated mental illness, domestic violence, poverty, addiction — can also wreck the development of the brain, he said.

“There is a biological injury that if not treated, this kid will carry on through their life,” he said. “The pre-frontal cortex in kids with trauma is actually physically smaller, and if not treated, they’ll carry that less cognitive ability and emotional control into adulthood.”

Because the amygdala, the emotional part of the brain, is actually larger in size, children see more fear, are scared more often and they’re more apt to jump into the fight or flight response.

The hippocampus also is smaller in size, which adversely affects memory.

“If we get the treatment to the child, what we find is there is this beautiful thing that happens called post-traumatic growth,” Bennett said. “If we heal the biological injury of trauma, not only do we re-correct that brain structure, you can do this at any age, but because the young brain is developing so rapidly, the earlier we get the treatment, the more effective and quickly the treatment will take hold.”

A key piece to mitigating these problems includes promoting prenatal care to create a biological environment for the brain to adapt or grow in a healthy way, and also creating trauma-informed schools.

“By the time these kids reach graduation in an average high school, two out of every three kids will have had experienced a trauma in their life by age 18,” Bennett said. “Too many of those go untreated.”

Pam Walker, the ECHO and Family Center council director, said without identification and intervention, children will struggle in school from the beginning.

She asked guest legislators, political candidates and even voters in the audience to support children and to invest in the very young when allocating available funds.

The ECHO and Family Center Early Childhood Council of Fremont County since 1976 has served infants, toddlers and preschool children through a collaborative early childhood system that addresses gaps in services and funding for children prenatal to kindergarten entry and their families.

They address learning and development, family support and parent education, and health and well-being through a number of programs and events.

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