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motivation in blue glass cubesIt is clear that early traumatic events alters the arousal system in the brain in ways that compromise children’s ability to regulate feelings and behavior. As a result, they are more likely than peers to be hypervigilant, shifting into a protective “fight, flight, or freeze” mode with even the smallest change to their environment or routine. What is less well understood is how these alterations effect children’s cognitive and social development moving forward.

Homeostasis is a term used to describe an optimal level of arousal. The environment is sufficiently stimulating to trigger interest and engagement, but well within children’s “zone of proximate development”. Children with early trauma histories find it difficult to achieve or sustain this internal balance. As they mature, early problems with emotional regulation extend into the areas of motivation, attention, and social cognition.


When trauma is unresolved it forces children to carry relentless needs for survival and safety into environments where these needs are no longer developmentally appropriate. This affects their motivation. Some are highly motivated to perform, striving for a perfectionism almost impossible to achieve. Others appear to lack any motivation to participate in events going on around them. In both cases, their behavior masks their inability to move beyond the trauma onto a path of self-discovery.


Children with early trauma histories have an attentional bias toward survival. Regardless of what is going on around them, their underlying concern is with safety and risk management. They show less curiosity than other children, and are less likely to explore new ideas or ways of doing things. As a result, they are somewhat rigid, repeating the same mistakes and finding it difficult to learn from others.

Social Cognition

Social cognition involves the ability to anticipate others’ motivations and goals, and use this information to modify one’s own behavior. Children with early trauma histories often lack this skill. They are unable to take the perspective of others, or make inferences to explain or predict the behavior of others.  They are also less accurate in their ability to recognize others’ emotional expressions. As a result, they act in impulsive and somewhat thoughtless ways with little or no insight into how their behavior effects those around them.

What You Can Do

  • Remind children several times a day that they are safe. Work with them to develop safety plans that include knowing what to do in an emergency and how to respond to peers or siblings who are speaking or acting in a way that feels threatening or harmful to their emotional safety.
  • Help children learn how to distinguish between actual danger in their environment and “false positives” (events that trigger anxiety but are in fact benign) by giving them opportunities throughout the day to reflect on their current experience and evaluate what is happening before acting.
  • If you are having a conflict with a child, switch roles for a minute so that each person can understand why the other is acting that way.