Insights on Childhood Trauma with Dr. Carl Weems

With the large amount of information regarding childhood trauma in both print and digital media, we at Science of Parenting took a moment to tap into our experts as way to ensure parents had valid and reliable information when it comes to the impacts of trauma and toxic stress on the developing brains of children and youth. Dr. Carl Weems, Professor and Chair, Department of Human Development and Family Studies, shared some great insight with us!

Dr. Weems shared that “Experiencing traumatic stress is common and may lead to a number of outcomes including anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder but also resilience and growth”. So if or your child have experienced traumatic stress, know that you are not alone and that it doesn’t make you “messed up”. Yes, this stress does have impact on the brain and is associated with some outcomes that are challenging, but it is also associated with RESILIENCE and GROWTH!

Dr. Weems also shared that when researchers look at how cognitive and psychological disorders “work” in the brain, they see that these disorders cannot be nailed down to one specific part of the brain but that several areas of the brain are a part of the disorder. Researchers have identified several key functional networks that may play a role in psychopathology, such as traumatic stress.  For example, he shared that the salience network is a network in the brain that is a collection of regions thought to be involved in detecting behaviorally relevant stimuli and coordinating neural resources in response.

This understanding of cognitive and psychological disorders makes sense with what Dr. Weems has studied relating to childhood trauma. He shared with us that differences in the brain’s structural connections and distributed functional networks (like the salience network) are associated with traumatic and severe early life stress.  Basically, when it comes to childhood trauma and toxic stress, we see that impacts many parts of the brain that are also the parts affected by psychological and cognitive disorders!

So you are now a parent “in-the-know” on some of the new highlights of current research around childhood trauma. If you want to explore more beyond the insights Dr. Weems shared with us, the following video clip from Resilience: The Biology of Stress may help you understand more about toxic stress and brain development.

The Science of Parenting Research page also currently highlights the impacts of Adverse Childhood Experiences



Carrión, V. G., & Weems, C. F. (2017). Neuroscience of pediatric PTSD. New York: Oxford University Press.

Menon, V. (2011). Large-scale brain networks and psychopathology: a unifying triple network model. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 15, 483–506.

Weems, C.F., Russell, J. D., Neill, E. L., & McCurdy, B. H. (Forthcoming in 2019). Pediatric Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from a Neurodevelopmental Network Perspective. Annual Research Reviews of Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

Weems, C. F. (2018, July 2). Personal communication.

Mackenzie Johnson

Parent to a little one with her own quirks. Celebrator of the concept of raising kids “from scratch”. Learner and lover of the parent-child relationship. Translator of research with a dose of reality. Certified Family Life Educator.

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The Role of Parents in Mental Health and Trauma Therapy

This week we welcome guest blogger Erin Neill. Erin is a doctoral student in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at Iowa State University. She is also a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker in Washington, DC. Erin is passionate about all things mental health.

Events such as hurricanes, tornadoes, terrorism, abuse, and neglect are all examples of traumatic experiences that many children in our country and around the world experience on a daily basis. Experiencing a traumatic event leads to poor outcomes for children, including acting out, poor school performance, substance abuse, and mental health issues such as posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Fortunately, we know that there are effective treatments for childhood PTSD. One of those treatments is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT. But what we don’t know is exactly how, or why, or for whom CBT works best. We need more information about this. For children we want to know, what is the role of parents?

There is some research that suggests that children and parents have a reciprocal relationship. That is, children and parents interact with each other to affect how CBT treatment is working. So far, however, there have been very few studies that show this type of relationship.

In my research, I looked at data for children who had experienced a traumatic event and developed PTSD as a result. These children, and only the children, attended 12 weeks of a CBT intervention. We also asked moms (who brought their children to treatment each week) to report on their child’s PTSD symptoms as well as their own maternal depression symptoms.

The most exciting finding was that even though the moms did not receive any treatment themselves, their depression symptoms decreased significantly over the course of their child’s treatment. But even more, they were part of the reason that their child got better over time. I found that it wasn’t just that child PTSD symptoms decreased over time, or because of the treatment, but at least part of the reason that kids’ PTSD symptoms decreased was because the moms’ depression decreased as well. I also found a reciprocal relationship; Part of the reason that moms’ depression symptoms decreased over time was because of their child’s PTSD symptom decrease.

This data provides evidence that moms and children really are affecting each other’s mental health. This is important to know, because if only one person can attend treatment, we know that therapy can affect the mental health of the dyad and of the family system.

This is just one step in learning how, and why, and for whom these treatments work. We continue to need more research in this area because children will continue to experience traumatic events, and they deserve effective treatments.

Lori Korthals, M.S.

Mother of three. Lover of all things child development related. Fascinated by temperament and brain development. Professional background with families, child care providers, teachers and community service entities.

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Break the Cycle of Childhood Trauma

lonelinessMore than half of us grew up in families that were marked with challenges, but we don’t have to pass those experiences on to the next generation. The cycle can be broken by developing safe, stable and nurturing relationships that heal the parent and the child. The keys to success are developing healthy relationships and building resiliency.

Traumatic, or adverse, childhood experiences can include neglect as well as physical, emotional and sexual abuse. Other family issues that can contribute to a traumatic childhood include substance abuse, divorce, hunger, domestic violence, mental illness and incarceration.

Children who are exposed to many adverse childhood experiences may become overloaded with stress hormones, leaving them in a constant state of fight or flight and unable to focus. They learn adaptive and coping behaviors in response to these experiences.

This month we will discuss ways to build resiliency in children. We also will discuss ways that communities can begin to support all children and families in reducing the incidence and impact of adverse childhood experiences.

Lori Korthals, M.S.

Mother of three. Lover of all things child development related. Fascinated by temperament and brain development. Professional background with families, child care providers, teachers and community service entities.

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