Neuroplasticity is a fancy word, that in technical terms describes the brain’s malleable nature. The brain’s very structure is shaped by one’s experiences, with neurons added, linked, and pruned away according to our environment. A human baby comes into this world with around one-hundred billion neurons, each of which contains about 10,000 branches. This leaves the possibility of around one-quadrillion connections, with an infinite number of possible configurations. (Diamond & Hopson, 1999, p. 37) To put this in perspective, the possible number of neural configurations within just one brain exceeds the number of atoms in the known universe. When you think about the fact that each planet or star has trillions upon the power of trillions of atoms, and that every galaxy (of which there are billions of) contains billions upon billions of stars, it gives newfound appreciation to just how unique each of us really are.

When a baby is born, only 17% of these neurons are linked. This means that the vast majority of wiring comes from the experiences a child encounters. The more a youngster encounters a particular experience, the stronger these neural pathways will become. Meanwhile, connections that are rarely used either die out or are rewired. This is the process that scientists refer to as neuroplasticity; which is essentially a way of saying the brain is like play dough, and can be sculpted according to its environment. Or as neuroscientists are fond of saying, “the neurons that fire together wire together.” The neurons in a child’s brain fire off and record information in response to their experiences. Those elements of a child’s environment that are encountered the most become etched into their brain, encompassing the basic structure that wires all their other thoughts and experiences together. The brain is such a highly malleable organ that even the visual cortex, a fairly “hardwired” area of the brain, can be subject to neuroplasticity. It can switch from processing sight to processing touch after a person is blindfolded for just five days. (Begley, 4-20-09

The implications of neuroplasticity for child development are profound. With every positive emotion or similar positive experience a child encounters, the connections in their brain for those environmental elements become stronger and branch out to other areas. With every negative emotional state or harsh experience a child endures, the same happens. The more certain experiences are experienced, the stronger these connections become and the more they branch out to other areas, which means that for better or worse, the emotional climate a child experiences the most wins over and wires their brain. It branches out, and the more it branches out, the more connected it will be to other aspects of a child’s thought. The more a neural pathway is used, the more stable it gets, and these pathways will essentially become like a superhighway of the brain. Just like an interstate highway, they’ll serve as a thoroughfare for traffic; other thoughts follow along these established pathways in the process of where they are going. During their early years, a child’s infrastructure is being built; the brain’s highways cleared and paved. They can be paved with flowers and sunshine and happy thoughts or forged from materials of despair. This is of course an oversimplification of a much more complicated process, but it’s the best analogy we could think of to illustrate this principle.

Neuroplasticity works for both good and bad. A child who experiences constant love and affection will develop a secure, loving, and affectionate brain. For example, studies in mice show that parents are capable of altering the genetic expression in their young depending on how much the mother rat licks and grooms her pups when they are little. The more physical affection they receive, the more stress-resilient the youngsters become. (Meaney, 2001) All evidence shows human children are the same way: touch, affection, nurturing and pleasurable contact with others in the early years will wire a child’s brain to be more loving, affectionate, and resistant to stress. A child who is neglected, abused, or ridiculed will develop an insecure brain that is more prone to stress, and all of their thoughts will run along this flawed foundation. Repetitive experiences develop what psychologists refer to as “hypersensitivity,” which is as it sounds: an acute sensitivity towards a particular stimulus. A child who is verbally abused develops hypersensitivity towards ridicule, and will likely have a more severe reaction to taunting or perceived ridicule where none was intended. A child who is physically abused develops an acute sensitivity towards perceived hostility or aggression. This is why physically abused children often have problems with fighting or physical aggression themselves; they naturally perceive more hostility from others in their world than there really is. If a child is repeatedly subjected to painful and/or undesirable sexual contact, they may begin to perceive sexual intentions in the affection of others, whether it’s there or not. This may cause them to withdraw from affection in general. And in general, the more a child experiences stress, the more receptors for stress the brain will create, leaving them with a life-long hypersensitivity towards stressful situations. (McEwen & Schmeck, 1994) When a youngster endures chronic stress during childhood, its imprint will likely be felt throughout all of life, in the form of a brain that is more crippled by stressful situations. It can even affect the way the brain grows. A child who has been severely neglected may have a brain weight of 25% less than that of a typical healthy child. Expose a child to early stressors such as abandonment, threats, aggression, or violence and you may get a brain with a deregulated stress response system and lower IQ. (Koenen et al., 2003)

It’s important to note that what matters here is not adult interpretations of whether something is good or bad, nor the types of experiences a child experiences, but rather, the emotional climate that exists within the experience. There are many things adults might consider traumatic that don’t bother children in the least. Likewise, there are many things that can bother children a great deal which many adults are nonchalantly dismissive of. So when you think about hypersensitivity, try to forget about “things.” We humans do like our labels, and we often forget about the extent to which our culture distorts our thinking. For example, we label any contact of a sexual nature between an adult and child as molestation, and culturally, we associate molestation with a horrendous experience. Yet in scientific terms, this is very much a problem. To be sure, a number of children have endured horrible cases of sexual abuse that did leave them traumatized. Yet if we judge on account of the label (adult-child sexual contact) and use this as a predictor for harm, we lose predictive accuracy. Would you be surprised to learn that large-scale studies show most children DO NOT suffer any severe or lasting effects from such an experience, and that a not insignificant proportion regard such experiences as positive? (Kendall-Tacket, Williams & Finkelhor, 1993; Rind, Tromovitch & Bauserman, 1998) Or that until very recently in human history, some cultures show such contact was fairly normal, that fondling children was even a routine act of caretaking. (Constantin & Martinson, 1981) Even today, because a section in human contact is ambiguous, it’s all but certain children will receive inadvertent sexual stimulation from adults numerous times throughout their childhood. (GCF 2016) There may be little difference between these accidental sexual experiences and the average nonviolent molestation, other than the fact that we ignore the one and treat the other like a catastrophe.

Humans like their labels, and so we automatically group such incidents all under the same curtain. Yet as the varied responses clearly show, what matters is not the label or necessarily even the type of experience, but the unique emotional climate under which it takes place. There are those out there who aggressively force sexual acts on children, leading to pain, hostility, fear, stress, and aggression as part of the experience. Naturally, we can expect these children to react in a negative manner and posit that such experiences are potentially traumatic on account of the elements they contained. Yet this hardly accounts for every child’s experience. Children are also sexual beings capable of experiencing sexual pleasure through stimulation, and are also naturally curious. Most children will encounter such an experience with someone they know and like, not an aggressor. So when the encounter occurs with a perpetrator who is not aggressive, but an otherwise compassionate and friendly person who is reasonably attuned with the child, this opens the door for a variety of other reactions; everything from mild discomfort to eager enthusiasm. Some might consider it controversial to even hint at such a possibility, lest anything short of all out condemnation be considered a lenient stance towards child abuse. Yet scientifically, there is nothing controversial or even debatable about such a statement. Furthermore, denying this reality because it’s not what adults would prefer to be true isn’t considering the interests of the child, and makes it possible for us to do more damage in a reaction than was done in the experience itself. (See our book: Child Maltreatment – A Cross Comparison) The bottom line is that when we think in terms of labels rather than the underlying emotional elements of the experience, we frequently get things wrong. It’s not a particular action that spells out trauma for a child, but the emotional elements within such an experience.

When parents worry about neuroplasticity and hypersensitivity in regards to their children, they need to worry about it in this way. It’s not any particular action that spells out disaster, but the emotional climate a child experiences:

Building healthy neuroplasticity in children:

  • Love
  • Physical affection
  • Reassurance
  • Compliments/Praise
  • Pleasure
  • Calm and affectionate tones
  • Support
  • Positive emotional energy

Building bad neuroplasticity in children:

  • Violence
  • Stress
  • Pain
  • Ridicule
  • Conflict
  • Aggression (physical, verbal, or sexual)
  • Anger
  • Shame
  • Despair
  • Threatening situations
  • Fear
  • Hostility
  • Condemnation

Hypersensitivity, for most parents, is a good thing. It means that isolated bouts of adversity should matter very little so long as families spend the bulk of a child’s life surrounding them with the type of love, affection, and nurturing that will build a secure brain. But it also means that you need to be careful and aware. There are numerous ways in which a parent’s behavior can hobble their child later, both following unpleasant events and in everyday life. Remember, children absorb the emotional climates around them, and will soak up your complexes along with your love.

Core concepts:

  • One of the most prominent ways parents mess up in this regard comes in their RESPONSE to adversity. If caretakers model a response of hatred, anger, shame, catastrophic thoughts, or other negative emotions, they have just introduced the potential for negative hypersensitivity to develop. If an isolated experience is met with such responses, then these negative emotions will be induced whenever a child thinks about such an experience afterwards, which can be for years to come. If something bad happens to a child that consumes a limited portion of their life, that experience doesn’t have the potential to develop negative hypersensitivity. But if an unhealthy response is modeled to that incident, then these emotions are not with the child in isolated doses, but potentially a few times a week for months and years to come; anytime the child merely recalls this event or is reminded of it. Just another reason why the proper response is extremely important.

des  Learn about your child’s brain neuroplasticity, & how their experiences lay down neural wiring that guides their behavior & shapes who they become.