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Violent and tragic life experiences such as abuse, homelessness, separation from parents, and lack of security are part of the lives of too many of today’s children. These experiences are difficult enough when they are happening, but now there is research showing that these experiences are so damaging that they can even make long-term changes to the victim’s DNA. The research also 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 along with others in a research collaborative recently completed a ten-year study of the effects of childhood stress on genetic chemistry. Researchers observed that young people who have suffered childhood trauma often have genetic markers on specific genes. The markers, known as epi-genetic 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 (Papale, Seltzer, Madrid, Pollak, & Alisch, 2018).

One observation from the study is that victims of childhood trauma often do not recall their experience accurately, possibly because they were too young, or they have blocked all or parts of their memory. Consequently, the experiences and their effects are often ignored or misunderstood. This new research holds the potential to provide a more accurate and stable diagnosis and opens the possibility for treatment.

Educators have suspected for a very long time that serious trauma during childhood often has 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 is positioned to receive additional attention and development of treatment protocols from the scientific research community. It also invites partnerships between the research and medical communities and the mental health and education communities to develop supports and services and advocate for solutions.

It is difficult to predict how quickly genetic-related treatment will be available. However, this research reinforces the importance of public policies that prevent or minimize social conditions that are associated with childhood trauma. Fighting poverty, supporting families, and providing employment are not just worthy aims. Effective public policies in these areas can prevent the life tragedies they cause and the life-compromising effects that result. Also notable is that these policies make good long-term economic sense as well.

This research and what we have known for too long about the effects of childhood trauma make a strong case for educators joining with other local, regional, and national organizations and agencies to advocate for better public policies and funding for research to reverse the lifelong effects of tragic experiences.

We have no time to waste. Each day more children suffer trauma and preventable tragic events in their lives. For those young people who have already lived through trauma, we need to do our best to provide hope and help.



Barncard, C. (2018, July 18). Childhood stress leaves lasting mark on genes. Retrieved from https://medicalxpress.com/news/2018-07-childhood-stress-genes.html

Papale, L. A., Seltzer, L. J., Madrid, A., Pollak, S. D., & Alisch, R. S. (2018, July 17). Differentially methylated genes in saliva are linked to childhood stress. Scientific Reports, 8(10785). doi:10.1038/s41598-018-29107-0

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