Childhood Trauma Can Affect A Person's Health Across A Lifetime. Here's How.

Johannes Van Zijl

Johannes Van Zijl

Johannes has a MSci in Neuroscience from King’s College London and serves as the Managing Director at IFLScience.

Managing Director


How childhood trauma affects health over a lifetime. Image Credit: Peter Leee/

The human brain is really remarkable. It begins developing all the way back in the womb and continues right into adulthood. So many things have to go just right for the brain to develop to its full capacity and for us to be emotionally healthy and cognitively functioning. This process is meticulously complex, and with that comes caveats. The brain is a plastic organ (meaning it's really malleable) and our environment plays an important role in shaping the developing brain during childhood, a period when children learn so much about the world around them. 

Brain plasticity is something parents may not be aware of in terms of how upbringings in negative environments might impact children's brain development. This crucial developmental period is often hindered in children that are subjected to challenging environments while growing up, such as neglect, poverty, or physical and emotional abuse.


In a TED talk, pediatrician Nadine Burke Harris explains how repeated neglect, abuse, and having parents struggling with substance abuse and/or mental health problems can have a real effect on the brain development of children, and how these events shape the health of these children over a lifetime. Harris makes a plea to pediatric medicine to help detect and prevent these events and tackle these challenges "head-on" by trying to identify them as early as possible, to protect and preserve child development. 

It's well documented that these types of experiences have lasting effects on children, especially when they occur during this critical period of development. It can change brain structure and function, influence the developing immune and hormonal systems, and even affect how DNA is processed. It has also been shown that children who experienced severe trauma have shorter life expectancies and a higher risk of dying of heart disease and cancer.

Recent research has even shown that mothers who themselves experienced childhood emotional neglect can pass on cross-generational "imprints" of fear and anxiety to their own children, an example of the devastating long-term effects. 

These childhood experiences can have long-term repercussions, which is why it is vital to focus on providing a nurturing and safe environment for all children to grow up in, and identifying and tackling challenging situations as early as possible. Childhood trauma does not only influence the health and wellbeing of the child in question but may have an everlasting generational effect on their kids one day.