Catherine Knibbs is the founder and CEO of Peer Support Yorkshire CIC and specialises as a trauma and abuse therapist for children and young people. The overall theme of her presentation focussed on the neuroscience of child sexual exploitation and how the brain is affected by trauma.

Catherine began her presentation with a simple exercise to show how a person can be manipulated into performing a task they may not be comfortable with. This simple example was then explained further to show can easily child sexual exploitation can occur using the same principles.

Brain development from birth to 25 years old

When a child is born they have around 100 billion Neurons in their brain. However, at this stage the brain is a work in progress and the neurons are immature. They need to be activated in order to create connections between themselves and become stronger.

By the age of 3 the child’s brain is fully formed and it is at this age that a child is able to start making sense of the world. New neuronal pathways are formed and strengthened by the experiences that a child sees or feels.

Between the ages of 3 and 7 years old a child starts to develop moral reasoning. They are able to complete complex movements, such as catching a ball, and the stages of cognition are developed.

The period between the ages of 7 and 12 is another influential stage for children. They start to feel peer pressure and want to be like their friends or a favourite celebrity. They also learn about fairness, equality and intention. Children generally become very self-absorbed at this age.

The next stage of development is adolescence, lasting roughly from the age of 12 all the way up 25 years old. This is where a child develops a sense of self-image and identity. Children have a lot of conflict with parents in this age range as they strive for independence whilst also needing parental support. Furthermore, hyper-rational thinking is developed at this age linking to feelings of risk and reward. Risk taking behaviour and hyper-rational thinking become linked as adolescents rationalise the risks that they take by only focussing on the positive outcomes, regardless of any negative consequences.

Polyvagal system

The polyvagal system is a linking of nerves which connects the brain down to the stomach. The polyvagal nerve itself is superior & inferior to the diaphragm and branches out to connect to different organs, such as the heart and lungs.

The polyvagal system is used as an instinct to maintain survival in the face of danger. Beginning with the concept of ‘friend’, here we try to diffuse a dangerous situation through communication. When this response is unsuccessful, the body goes to its primal reaction of ‘freeze’ where it stops and quickly considers which other response would be the most successful to maintain survival. The reactions of ‘fight’, ‘flight’ and ‘flop’ are all considered and the most appropriate action is chosen. This system of reaction is known as the Five F’s and is directly controlled by the Vagus nerve.

The feelings of danger linked with the Five F’s can be measured using a model known as the Window of Tolerance. This model measures arousal levels and has three different zones. The Optimal Arousal Zone is the most stable state as it is where emotions can be tolerated and information integrated. Arousal levels can drop down in the Hypoarousal Zone when the ‘flop’ mechanic is used as there is a relative absence of sensation and reduced physical movement. On the other hand arousal levels can move up into the Hyperarousal Zone when the ‘fight or flight’ mechanic is implemented. The movement out of the Optimal Arousal Zone is caused by exposure to stressful situations and can cause trauma to occur.

The effect of Trauma on the brain

Catherine used a model she called ‘Capsules of Trauma’ to explain how trauma is not only caused by significant events. Instead, small occurrences can build on each other to cause large levels of stress and anxiety to build up. Catherine theorised that when our emotions move out of the Optimal Arousal Zone, a trauma capsule is formed. These can be caused by what seem like minor events, but can quickly build up until someone is overwhelmed with stress and snaps.

The hippocampus is a part of the brain which plays an important role in the formation of new memories about experienced events. Trauma memories can bypass the hippocampus, however, as, when a traumatic event occurs, our thought processes change to subcortical processes, which we have no control over. This explains why some victims of child sexual exploitation are unable to explain what has happened to them. The traumatic event has caused the child to go into the ‘flop’ mechanic as a kind of coping mechanism to give themselves cognitive distance from the event.

Toxic feelings and interpersonal struggle

When there is an event of child sexual exploitation it can be traumatic to the victim, not only due to the event itself, but also because of the toxic feelings of shame and embarrassment that a victim feels. Embarrassment only lasts a brief moment therefore is tolerable and, if we are feeling guilty, then we have the ability to do something to change how the event is affecting us. It is shame, however, that can cause major issues. Shame is an implicit feeling which mimics trauma and can cause similar effects. With support, however, the feelings can be managed and the effects minimised.

Catherine ended her presentation by emphasising that it is important not to forget that when someone is showing any behaviour that can be linked to embarrassment, guilt or shame, it is a form of communication and needs to be addressed. Victims always need to be supported and not blamed.

If you would like to find out more about Catherine’s work on child trauma including cyber trauma, please click here.


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