Lifelong Effects of Childhood Trauma

Current scientific and medical knowledge demonstrates that many of the well-documented behavioral and psychological problems observed in victims of childhood maltreatment are outward manifestations of alterations in physiologic functions at the level of hormones, brain function and development, and even genetic material.

The consequences of childhood trauma can reverberate throughout an individual’s lifetime. An extensive report issued by the Institute of Medicine and National Academy of Sciences states that in the last two decades, “Researchers have found that child abuse and neglect affects not only children but also the adults they become. Its effects cascade throughout the life course, with costly consequences for individuals, families, and society. These effects are seen in all aspects of human functioning, including physical and mental health, as well as important areas such as education, work, and social relationships.” Among the findings demonstrated by burgeoning research are that the consequences of child abuse are “… serious, long-lasting, and cumulative through adulthood …” and “… include effects on the brain and other biological systems, as well as on behavior and psychosocial outcomes.”

In evaluations of adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse, an understanding of the impact childhood traumas have on fundamental physiologic processes complements well-described psychological and behavioral perspectives. For example, we can more deeply understand the mechanisms underlying some of the deficits displayed by abuse victims, gain insight into dysfunctional behaviors, and come to appreciate new, previously hidden damages. These perspectives may also have relevance in cases of mitigation.

Litigation often hinges on issues of memory. Against conventional notions that view human memory something like a video recorder, phenomena such as ‘False Memory’ or ‘Recovered Memory’ appear puzzling. In the past, arguments about the validity of either false memory or recovered memories were so contentious that they were dubbed “The Memory Wars.” However, research over the last 25 years in basic neuroscience, behavioral and cognitive psychology, and neuroimaging confirm that memory function can indeed be impacted by suggestion, social influence, and traumatic stress—often in paradoxical or counterintuitive ways. In any case where an individual claims to have a recollection of past traumatic events after a prolonged period of forgetting, a careful evaluation is required to distinguish between the likely effects of suggestive therapy versus a genuine recovered memory.


"That was one of the clearest explanations of the neurobiological effects of traumatic stress I have ever heard. I would love to get you in front of a jury!" — Client Comment
(after a talk)