A recent review and meta-analysis of mental health literature looked at the relationship between complex trauma and cognitive functioning in children. The results shows a significant decrease in cognitive functioning among children who had suffered complex trauma, and that the decrease happens relatively quickly. It's not clear how this happens. There are studies showing differences in the brains of children who have suffered trauma, but those studies have small sample sizes and have not been widely replicated. The usual scientific method of measuring something, introducing the bad effect, and measuring again is not ethically available in social sciences. So, the best we can do is note strong correlations and hypothesize about causation.
Still, the connection between complex childhood trauma and lessened cognitive functioning is strong enough for youth serving organizations to pay attention. First, we have to realize that trauma hijacks normal processing patterns. Whether the mechanism is biological or psychological, we know that survivors of complex trauma have difficulty focusing on higher level tasks. The analogy I use is a computer that is running a resource-having program in the background. While that background program is running, what we see on our screens is slow, glitchy, and annoying. Similarly, children who have suffered complex trauma are spending a lot of their emotional and cognitive resources in the background trying to process their experiences. So, what we see on the surface will be glitchy, slow, and highly annoying.
Youth organizations therefore need to understand that the obnoxious behavior we are seeing may not be the usual bad attitude, but an impaired cognitive response to our requests. Also, we need to understand that children often do not have the vocabulary to understand that background processing. So, when we ask them what's going on or what happened in a given situation, they simply may not be able to give us a coherent narrative. All of these situations require a lot of patience from us. Structure also is important, because if we let kids use their experiences as an excuse, they never will learn how to move past them. Structure with logical consequences is an important way to help them learn and repair those cognitive deficits.
The good news is that we are learning more about how trauma affects children and techniques that work in helping them. Keeping up with the research in this area will be an important way to improve our programs and our services to our clients.