We know the impact trauma can have on the health and spirit of young lives in its immediate aftermath. We also often see the aftereffects of trauma for months following serious incidents and tragic occurrences. Obviously, these experiences are difficult enough when they’re happening, but now research shows that the damage children suffer can create long-term changes to their DNA. Sadly, research shows that the impact of early-in-life trauma stays with young people as they grow and can make them vulnerable to even more trauma later in life.
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and others in a research collaborative recently completed a ten-year study of the effects of childhood stress on the genetic chemistry of victims. Researchers observed that young people who’ve suffered childhood trauma often have genetic markers on specific genes. The markers, known as epigenetic modifications, determine whether the genes will function properly. These genetic markers influence emotional regulation, including susceptibility to depression, vulnerability to drug dependency, and other mental health challenges.
The study also revealed that victims of childhood trauma often don’t recall their experience accurately, possibly because they were too young, or they’ve blocked all or parts of their memory. Consequently, the experiences and their effects can be ignored or misread. Researchers hope that the research will lead to more accurate and stable diagnoses of later life aftereffects. With further development, the findings may also open the possibility for treatment.
Educators have suspected for a very long time that serious trauma during childhood can have lasting implications for students. The challenge has been to understand the implications and provide help. Since this research defines and documents the problem in genetic terms, it positions it to receive additional attention. The findings might also hold promise for the development of treatment protocols. Research points to the importance of partnerships between the research and medical communities and the mental health and education communities to develop supports and services and advocate for solutions.
It’s difficult to predict how quickly genetic-related treatment in response to past trauma will be available. However, this research reinforces the importance of public policies that prevent or minimize social conditions associated with childhood trauma. Fighting poverty, supporting families, and providing employment aren’t just worthy aims. Effective public policies can prevent the life tragedies trauma can cause and life compromising effects that result. These policies also make good long-term economic sense.
This research and what we have long known about the effects of childhood trauma make a strong case for us to partner with other local, regional, and national organizations and agencies. It’s imperative to advocate for better public policies and funding for research to mitigate and potentially reverse the lifelong effects of these tragic experiences.
We’ve no time to waste. Each day more children suffer trauma and preventable tragic events in their lives. For those young people who’ve already lived through their own trauma, we need to do our best to provide hope and help.