This is a much more complicated question than one might think. One of the factors that complicate the question is that there exists no set, clear and well defined definition of what is traumatic. There exist a tremendous latitude to what can be traumatic, based on the individual’s resiliency and mental architecture, however this doesn’t mean that it is unknowable, merely difficult to say with any certainty that this or that WILL lead to trauma when you are dealing with children or families. An additional complicating factor has recently become even more confounding. In the field of biology we are becoming more aware of the epigenetic effects that can lead to changes in people. Epigenetic change occurs because of interactions with an environment, rather than a shifting of DNA material in the genes. These changes appear to be permanent and inheritable for at least several generations.
The range and possibilities for environmental interactions are infinite and in many ways incalculable in nature. In this article we will examine the effects how anything that interrupts or interferes with the normal psychological, social or emotional development of a person can lead to epigenetic expressions in their offspring.
For the purposes of this article a focus on developmental trauma will be used to discuss the answer to “when can trauma begin?” Micah Leshem and Alice Shachar-Dadon of the University of Haifa and Jay Schulkin of the Georgetown University School of Medicine recently published an article that has reset psychological thinking about when trauma can begin. Their research is also supported by Adele Diamond, Professor of Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of British Columbia who claims that trauma experienced by a mother prior to pregnancy can increase the likelihood of an epigenetic influence her offspring’s behavior. Together these findings suggest that trauma may begin for a child before they are even conceived, based on the life experiences and stress levels in the life of the mother. This is a vital point to understand: That the trauma or stress experienced by the mother can create an environmental press of an epigenetic nature or create an atmosphere that can negatively impact as yet un-conceived child.
Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D. of the Child Trauma Academy has long established that exposure to stress, accident, poor neonatal care, or maternal substance abuse can have severe impact on the developing fetus and create novel brain patterns and sensitivities that later can be manifested in odd or ineffective child behaviors. Perry’s research coupled with that of Micah Leshem; Alice Shachar-Dadon; Jay Schulkin and Adele Diamond would clearly warn that trauma can begin through the creation of stressors that are significant in the life of the future mother, or the family functioning and future mom’s ability to cope with stressors.
An additional factor that complicates the question of when trauma begins is found in individual resilience and adaptability on the part of the mother. Not all experiences are created equal, different people experience the same situations in an idiosyncratic or unique way which challenges the ability to be definitive or absolute in stating at what specific point trauma was initiated. While the specific moment may be unrecognizable there are elements that can exacerbate the impact of trauma on the mother and increase the likelihood of trauma. These are sometimes considered the primary factors of acuity. Those acuity factors are INTENSITY, DURATION, and FREQUENCY. These factors would be the same for the mother as for the fetus or newborn child.
In an effort to understand the beginning of trauma, one would want to understand how the mother perceives the intensity of the stressors she is experiencing. Many researchers feel hesitant to use such an ambiguous measure, because it is a challenge to create good statistical analysis when each person possesses a highly personalized and unique view of what intensity is like for them. Duration, or the length of time between the beginning and end of an episode is a little easier to grasp and quantify, but even that is somewhat personalized by the perceptions of the individual experiencing the stressor. Frequency being the final factor is simply how often a thing occurs that is stressful or distressing to the one experiencing it.
How INTENSITY, DURATION, and FREQUENCY interact collectively becomes vitally important. One can have a low level of intensity, but if it lasts for long periods of time, or occurs quite often this combination can begin to generate stress that potentially may overwhelm the future mom’s ability to adapt or cope. If one had high intensity, long durations and frequent occurrences, it would be easy to significantly devastate the emotional, psychological and even to some extent the physical reserves of the future mother.
So when can trauma begin? It is possible for it to begin to manifest itself in the life of the mother, sometime before conception. This would suggest that creating more stable environments that are within a tolerable range of stress prior to conception, and maybe significantly before conception might be an important factor to support healthy emotional and psychological development in children. It is also likely that adolescent mothers might be at greater risk of generating epigenetic trauma effects in their offspring, because of the natural instability of adolescence.
A cautionary note must be sounded as well; some readers may misinterpret the thrust of the writer’s thought process herein. For clarity it must be declared that in no way is the writer blaming child problems on the mother, it is a simple recognition that a highly stressed future mother that is being subjected to an environment that overwhelms her ability to adapt can engender epigenetic activation of trauma for the child.
In summary, one possible answer to the question of when can trauma begin can be answered by the life and environment of the mother before she gets pregnant, the level of stress during pregnancy, and the distress in the environment postnatally. This should create a thought process about how collectively a society that is stable and supportive can be created and maintained to give as yet unborn children greater opportunity to thrive and prosper.