Triggers, Trauma and the Brain

Triggers, Trauma and the Brain

Erica Moltz, MA, NCC

Clinical Director

Children may behave in ways that parents find strange or upsetting. For children who have experienced abuse, neglect and/or have been adopted, it can be especially hard to know if a child’s “challenging” behavior is part of being a kid, or if it is related to past traumas and adoption. Here is some info about trauma and triggers and how they affect the human brain and behavior.

What is trauma?

Trauma occurs when someone hears, witnesses or experiences an event that is life threatening, violent or unexpected. In response, he or she feels overwhelmed, helpless and out of control. A trauma can be witnessing violence or a crime, or it may be abuse/neglect. Separation from birth parents can also be traumatic. 


What does it mean when my child is triggered?

Triggers are things that remind people of traumatic events and bring up strong feelings of anger, sadness, fear or anxiety. A trigger can be something unexpected like an object, smell or other strong feelings. And, it can be something expected or even anticipated, like a birthday, holiday, or the changing of a season, that is a reminder of the trauma. Many times, a child is being triggered and they don’t know it themselves. They also may not have the words to tell you that they are having strong feelings in reaction to the trigger. Children express their feelings through behavior so that changes in your child’s behavior may be a clue that he or she is experiencing a trauma trigger.


Flight or flight and trauma

When someone feels like they are in danger or being threatened, even from a trigger, their “fight or flight” reflex gets triggered and they may feel like they need to protect themselves from the threat by literally fighting or running away. All of us have a “fight or flight” reflex that is designed to protect us from danger & threats – like if we suddenly encountered a grizzly bear.  The “fight or flight” reflex responds without us thinking about it. Children who have experienced trauma may experience the “fight or flight” reflex every time they are reminded of a past traumatic experience. For some kids, that may literally be all the time.


An exercise to understand a “triggered brain.

Try this exercise to get a picture of what it’s like for a brain to be triggered – or for a child to “flip his lid”.               


Make a fist with your thumb tucked inside your fingers.  The fist is the brain, and the wrist & forearm is the spinal cord. The bottom of the palm is the brainstem and controls things like breathing, heart rate and digestion that happen without us thinking. The thumb, tucked in the middle of your fist, represents the midbrain, where our emotions and memories are created and processed. This is also where the “flight-or fight” reflex is started. The midbrain is our “emotional brain”. The functions that take place in our midbrain happen without us thinking. The back of your hand and fingers represents the cerebral cortex where more advanced functioning occurs. It allows us to think with logic, reason and to act with kindness. It is also where our problem-solving abilities are housed.  The cerebral cortex is our “rational brain”. Your fingernails are the prefrontal cortex; it sits behind your eyebrows. It is where logic and reasoning begins, and what gets kicked into action when there is a problem to solve.                                

The Brain Flips Its Lid

Sometimes the emotional brain (thumb) and the rational brain (fingers) don’t communicate too well. The emotions of the midbrain are too overwhelming (like when a child is re-experiencing a traumatic event), his “fight-or-flight” reflex gets triggered, and he “flips his lid.”  With your fist, make all your fingers stand straight up. Flip!  Of course, our brains don’t actually move and change shape in this way, but this activity can help us understand what is happening in our brains when we are feeling strong emotions, like when we, or our child experiences a trauma trigger. Notice how far your fingertips are from your thumb. When we “flip our lids,” our rational brains are poorly connected to our emotional brains.   In other words, it is really hard and sometimes not possible to think logically when we are triggered and/or feeling strong emotions.  


How to Be Calm and in Our “ Thinking” Brain

In order to tap into our rational brain again and to turn off the “fight or flight” reflex, we need to calm our strong feelings. Then our prefrontal cortex (or fingernails) can “reconnect” to the midbrain (or thumb) and our brain can settle into its typical state (close your fingers and thumb again). Everyone experiences a flipped lid from time to time, but it happens more often to children because their brains aren’t fully mature yet. And it happens even more easily to children who have experienced trauma.


What Parents Need to Remember                

Children need a lot more help from parents and caregivers to “re-connect” the prefrontal cortex to the midbrain, or calm down and learn how to handle strong feelings. Children learn this from parents through PACE: being playful, giving them affection, being open and curious, and empathizing with how your child is feeling. Remember, parents flip their lids, too, so you may need to calm down when you’re feeling strong emotions to restore your ability to think rationally.


Adapted from “What Happens to the Brain When We ‘Lose It’”, by Kelly Bartlett, on



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