Incarcerated Youth and Childhood Trauma

Childhood exposure to traumatic events can cause developmental issues and is associated with a variety of behavioral symptoms. The plasticity of the brain, meaning the ability to change and adapt based on exposure to different stimuli, is a crucial aspect of brain development. The areas of the brain responsible for regulating emotion and behavior are especially sensitive to emotional and physical stress.

Brain imaging has revealed that some of the brain structures that regulate emotion and behavior are measurably smaller and have irregular brain activity in abuse survivors. Lower IQs; learning disabilities; and an increased likelihood of developing psychiatric conditions such as depression, substance abuse disorders, and posttraumatic stress disorder can all result from childhood trauma.

Many “behavioral responses to trauma often resemble the common delinquent behaviors seen in youth referred to the justice system and are therefore under-identified as posttraumatic symptoms.” For example, recent brain research has indicated that chronic traumatic stress causes youth to develop an oversensitive warning system, which causes the youth to feel threatened and to overreact to misperceived threats. Therefore, the youth is unable to focus on tasks at hand such as schoolwork or long-term planning because they are operating in survival mode. The behavioral symptom of overreacting to misperceived threats may resemble and be mistaken for aggression or hostility.

Emma Harrison2011