The Foster Parent’s Glossary: AMYGDALA

eqbrain_optical_stim_enI have never studied neuroscience. I was a music major, and later a communications major, so neither focus of my studies involved studying the brain (except for some cursory info on how music impacts the brain). But when I became a foster parent, I quickly realized that I needed to become a student of the brain.

One word that has come up often as I have studied how to parent children who have experienced trauma early in life (from the womb, in fact), is the word “amygdala.” Perhaps you are familiar with this, but in case you’re not, here’s a bit of info that will be very helpful in understanding some of things you might experience as you parent your foster children.

This post from the blog Neurons Firing gives a simple, brief explanation of what the amygdala is and how it functions. In brief, “The amygdala deals with our emotions, helps process our memories, and gets totally absorbed in managing our response to fear and stress.”

This Time magazine article explains how childhood trauma affects brain development and can have a lasting impact on behavior well into adulthood. The author writes, “Painful experiences early in life can alter the brain in lasting ways. A difficult reality for psychiatrists and counselors ofchild abuse is that young victims are at high risk of becoming offenders themselves one day, although it’s unclear why. But now a team of behavioral geneticists in Switzerland report a possible reason: early psychological trauma may actually cause lasting changes in the brain that promote aggressive behavior in adulthood.”

And lastly, this article from Empowered to Connect goes into more detail about the implications of the specific types of trauma (abuse and neglect) that many foster children experience. They offer this encouraging conclusion: “While it is true that many children who come from the hard places have the appearance of mental illness, we are confident from our decade of research based intervention development that many children have “crazy” behaviors which can be disarmed by disarming their belief that they are cornered in a hard place and by disarming the work of the amygdala and other primitive brain structures that keep the child in a chronic Fight, Flight, or Freeze mode. Data from our camp and from our intensive home program provide documentation that our children’s stress hormone, cortisol, can be cut in half in a period of days when they feel safe. In addition, data from our research document the fact that the excitatory neurotransmitters that drive mental illness can be cut in half when a child knows that they are safe.”

I cannot emphasize how helpful this information has been when it has come to parenting children in our home who have experienced early trauma. While we do use things like consequences and natural outcomes to teach our children, we have come to see that no amount of conversation or consequences will affect our kids’ behavior if they are operating from a place of panic (fight, flight, or freeze). They are incapable of being rational or even hearing us in those moments. As we have focused on helping them feel safe and connected, we have seen great progress.


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