Exposure to violence (e.g., physical and sexual abuse, witnessing domestic violence, exposure to violence in the community) involves a significant threat of harm to a child. Approximately one in five children in the U.S. will experience interpersonal violence by the time they reach adulthood. Our work has shown that exposure to these types of traumatic events in childhood alters emotional and neurobiological development to enhance the identification of potential threats in the environmental and magnify emotional responses to those threats. We have found evidence for heightened threat processing at multiple levels—including social information processing biases, difficulty discriminating between threat and safety cues, elevated emotional reactivity, and emotion regulation difficulties—as a developmental mechanism linking child trauma with psychopathology. Although these adaptations may promote safety in dangerous environments, our research suggests that they are a central mechanism linking child trauma to the onset of anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and externalizing problems. Our ongoing work on trauma exposure is examining how these types of threatening experiences alter emotional learning mechanisms, such as the ability to extinguish fear to a previously threatening cue that is no longer dangerous and the generalization of fear.
Our work on neurodevelopmental mechanisms linking trauma exposure with child and adolescent psychopathology has been funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, the Jacobs Foundation, the Brain and Behavior Foundation, the Charles H. Hood Foundation, and the Raikes Foundation and has been covered by NPR, The New York Times, and numerous other media outlets.