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It’s been snowing a lot here – 73 inches in three weeks. And really cold. Temperatures well below freezing. The result? Ruts. Lots of them. Making getting in and out of the driveway more than challenging.

Yesterday as I struggled to get out of a particularly deep rut, my mind was on the ruts children find themselves in when they live with chronic adversity or stress. These early experiences alter the development of the brain’s prefrontal cortex. That’s the area of the brain most sensitive to stress. According to neuroscientist Adele Diamond, even mild stress can flood the prefrontal cortex with dopamine, effectively shutting down the control center of the brain. This is the area of the brain responsible for conscious regulation of though, emotion, and behavior. Its primary “executive functions” are inhibitory control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility.

Which brings me back to the ruts in the road. While children with early trauma history find all aspects of executive functioning difficult, cognitive flexibility may be their greatest challenge. By its very nature, trauma limits children’s ability to change the way they think about things, especially how they think about themselves or adults who try to help them. The ruts of self- hatred and mistrust are deep. And children trip on them often. Their perseveration on the past limits their ability to move beyond it. Compulsive repetitions of traumatic interactions with adults, sap the energy needed to take advantage of new opportunities. Intrusive memories of harmful events are a constant reminder to remain focused on survival rather than taking the risk to try something new.

Children become more flexible in the company of playful, yet predicable adults, who engage them in “what if?” conversations about safe, hypothetical problems. Laughter and giggling create social bonds that help bridge histories of mistrust.  Martial arts and yoga build children’s physical flexibility, often releasing the energy that feeds the ruts.

And just like the sun shining on the driveway, the warmth of caring relationships eventually reduces the depth of the ruts traumatizing experiences leave in children’s hearts and brains. They lose their power to hold them back.

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