Giving Children the Science of the Brain to Break the Cycles

Giving Children the Science of the Brain to Break the Cycles

I was moved to write about giving children the science of the brain to break the cycles after reading Sarah Childress’s June 24, 2014, article, “As Child Abuse Persists at Spirit Lake, Congress Steps In,” appearing on the Frontline page. And please know, I’m not trying to overly-simplify here and that what I share next is universally relevant to all children, parents and caregivers, not just those referenced in the linked article.

Child Abuse, Childhood Trauma and Changed Brain Circuitry

If you are in a position of influence with a disrupted child, dig deeper - it may be that child is living in a home with untreated alcoholism.

Growing up with alcohol misuse and the related drinking behaviors and untreated secondhand drinking can change a child’s brain circuitry.

Often the reason child abuse (verbal, physical, emotional abuse; neglect) happens is because of alcohol misuse and the related drinking behaviors and untreated secondhanddrinking (SHD) in the home or one’s social environment, which in turn is often a consequence of those individual’s (the ones misusing alcohol or experiencing untreated SHD) still carrying the scars of their own untreated child abuse.

Child abuse changes a child’s brain circuitry – it changes brain circuitry! [And it’s not just child abuse that changes brain circuitry. It can be childhood trauma, such as a parent’s death or untreated mental illness, or a child’s traumatic brain injury, or incarceration of a family member or witnessing domestic violence against mother, as examples. Of note: with many of these, however, there is a causal connection with alcohol misuse – see NCADD’s page, Alcohol and Crime, for statistics.]

Child's brain goes through critical developmental processes aged 5-20 and continues until around 22 for girls and 24 for boys. Source: NIDA, "Cormorbidity: Addiction and Other Mental Illnesses," p. 4

A child’s brain goes through critical developmental processes ages 5-20 and continues until around 22 for girls and 24 for boys. Source: NIDA, “Cormorbidity: Addiction and Other Mental Illnesses,” p. 4

Not only does child abuse change brain circuitry, but the brain’s developmental processes occurring ages 12-25 are when a teen / young adult’s brain wires most of their teen and adult coping skills as embedded brain maps. These coping skills might include lashing out when triggered by anger or drinking to minimize the feelings associated with despair or short-circuiting healthier lifestyle options because the neural network wiring necessary to succeed in those options were not the neural networks being used, therefore strengthened.

Using the Science of the Brain to Help Children Use the Power of Their Brain to Control Their Lives

It is a vicious cycle, to be sure, but one of the key components for breaking it is helping children understand what’s “really” going on and that requires helping children (and their parents or care givers) understand they (children) don’t have the brain wiring to make sense of what makes no sense, e.g., a parent’s or care giver’s drinking behaviors and SHD behaviors, nor to understand their parents / care giver’s behaviors are not a reflection of their (the child’s) core self. We must then help children understand what they can and cannot do to protect themselves – to protect their brains – in spite of it all.

The brain controls EVERYTHING a person thinks, feels, says and does. Thus it’s critical we start helping children of all ages understand the power of their brain and the power they can exert over their brain, therefore their lives. One way is to use “The Science of Why” (designed for use in workplaces as a means of informing adults of these many interconnected concepts) and “The Power of the Brain” (designed for use with youth and school education programs), which places the messages squarely where they belong – as something applicable to all of us. Another is to embrace programs like those described in this article, Culture of Health: Building Resilience to Undo Childhood Trauma.

It’s never too late to change, to heal, to rewire one’s brain. Neuroplasticity is just another of the wonders of the brain now coming to light with the new brain and addiction-related research. When a person understands and embraces this new research, they can change their lives. It’s never too late. I know. I didn’t start my own Secondhand Drinking recovery until my 5th decade.

BUT, it’s never too early, either.

Let’s give our children a better chance of living “their” lives in spite of what’s happening around them. Let’s help them understand the power of their brain.

[P.S. – The information shared in this article holds true for drug misuse and the related drug misuse behaviors and untreated secondhand drugging.]

Related Articles

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Study (one of the largest investigations ever conducted to assess associations between childhood maltreatment and later-life health and well-being)

Understanding the Effects of Maltreatment on Brain Development

Traumatic Stress: Effects on the Brain

Harnessing Neuroplasticity for Clinical Applications

Culture of Health: Building Resilience to Undo Childhood Trauma

© 2014 Lisa Frederiksen

Lisa Frederiksen

Lisa Frederiksen

Author | Speaker | Consultant | Founder at
Lisa is the author of hundreds of articles and 11 books, including "If You Loved Me, You'd Stop!," "Addiction Recovery: What Helps, What Doesn't," and "Secondhand Drinking: the Phenomenon That Affects Millions." She is a national keynote speaker with over 25 years speaking experience, consultant, and founder of She has spent more than 14 years studying 21st century brain research in order to write, speak, and consult on substance use disorders prevention, intervention and treatment; mental disorders; addiction (aka substance use disorders) as a brain disease; adolescent addiction treatment vs adult addiction treatment; effective treatment for co-occurring disorders (having both a substance use and mental disorder); secondhand drinking | drugging; help for the family; and related subjects. In 2015, she founded SHD Prevention, providing training and consulting to companies, public agencies, unions, nonprofits and other entities to address the workplace impacts of employee secondhand drinking and alcohol misuse.

13 Responses to Giving Children the Science of the Brain to Break the Cycles

  1. It is hard to think about the kids that suffer from second hand drinking or drugging. They are victims and more often than not do not have any recourse over the adults in their household. This is a much needed curriculum that we could bring into the schools, so that children have a better understanding of their brain, how it functions and what they can do to help themselves. You are so right, that we are never too old or never too young to change, to heal or to rewire one’s brain. Thanks Lisa!

    • Thank you for your comment, Cathy. Given your experience as a former elementary school teacher, as well as what you do now as a Recovery Coach for parents whose children have a substance misuse problem, your support for this sort of SHD elementary school curriculum is very encouraging – thank you!

  2. Beth Wilson says:


    This is phenomenal information! I’ve known for years that a child’s brain development is thwarted by his or her early drug or alcohol use but I was unaware that any sort of abuse in a child’s home would also affect brain development. So glad to know that it’s never too late to rewire. And, as you point out, it’s never too early to introduce kids (and their adult caregivers!) to programs that will help shore them up.

    A new generation of my family began last week with the birth of my first great-nephew. I’m comforted in knowing that even with a genetic predisposition to addiction, his future is bright thanks to the programs you’re describing, should he (and his parents) need them.

    Thanks for another stellar article!

    • You are so welcome and thank YOU, Beth! Until I began this research, I was not aware of this either, but it makes so much sense to me now in light of that research. When we realize we are born with roughly 100 billion brain cells – roughly the number we have as adults – they have to be wiring like crazy, otherwise we’d come out doing what we do as adults. The other very interesting piece for me is the developmental stages 12-25. It was always assumed the brain was pretty much developed by age 12, but when we understand the reason for puberty was not only to give humans the adult like bodies they need for sex and the hormonal changes to “want” sex, it was to change the species’ brains to take risks and turn to their peers. And the primary reason for these THREE changes is that the average lifespan was 25-30 years so when a child entered puberty, Mom and Dad were already dead. If the species had not taken risks and turned to their peers and had sex, we would have become extinct. We need to help children understand ALL of this so they can protect their brains and determine the course of their lives given the “thinking” part – the parts of the cerebral cortex that are the brakes on those risk taking behaviors and the ones needed in order to take the long-view approach to life and decisions – doesn’t even start wiring until around age 16 and takes until around age 25 to complete. Whew! That was a long-winded reply on my part 🙂 !

      Congratulations on the birth of your great-nephew!!

  3. Beth Burgess says:

    Hi Lisa, Thanks for writing this – it’s a really important topic. With almost all of my clients I find it necessary to reprocess the painful feelings they could not understand or process as a child. It makes a massive difference.

    Many of my clients have also been part of the generational cycle of addiction. When I explained this to one client, he did something quite wonderful. He asked me to work with his 10 year old son to give him the resources he would need to deal with the hurt already caused by the addiction. What an amazing way of making amends. That child will now go forward with the tools to deal with his dad’s addiction that my client never had. I found that really touching 🙂

    Best wishes and keep up the great work,

    • Oh Beth – what a wonderful experience that must have been. That young boy is one very lucky child – as you said, “What an amazing way of making amends.” And it’s so important that family members – the non-addicted spouses / parents, for example – understand all of this, and the role their behaviors play in perpetuating the cycle. I know in my own case, it was very confusing to my young daughters when I’d be storming around the house, obviously upset, and they’d be asking, “Mommy, what’s wrong?” to which I’d reply, “NOTHING!” Or “Mommy, are you OK?” to which I’d replay, “I’m FINE!” – in both cases, that was obviously not true so they would try various things to “make” me OK or to help me “feel” better, not having any clue that the rage over decades of hurt feelings, broken promises and failed attempts to “fix” the alcoholics in my life that swirled through my brain were unfixable by them. I am happy to share, however, that I got help and got help for them with our individual therapists – all of whom specialize in working with families with this disease – and have each gone on to live healthy – SHD-free – happy lives!

  4. Right on the money here, as usual, Lisa. I know how much you love the science of it all, and you use it well toward making your point and helping. Absolutely, any form of child abuse negatively impacts brain chemistry – even anatomy. And helping youngins’ gain insight into what’s going on is a great idea. I mean, it’s one thing to verbalize, but when they can be shown it bangs the point home all the more. As a counselor, I so often help adults manage the manifestations of brain “damage” from childhood/adolescence. How they wish an intervention took place all those years ago. The work would be so much easier. I appreciate what you do for all who are harmed by SHD, Lisa. Your passion is obvious…

    • Thank you so much, Bill – for the comment and compliment and for sharing your expertise and experience as a counselor in your work with patients. This helps others see the “real-life” connection between the two.

  5. Herby Bell says:


    “The brain controls EVERYTHING a person thinks, feels, says and does.” I’m all like, any questions? I just heard brain expert, Daniel Amen say there is no such thing as a “mild” TBI or traumatic brain injury. And as you so astutely and regularly point out, the bad news: We’ve got plenty, no, an epidemic of childhood TBI–and the good news: A ton of resources to help.

    Donno how else to say it beyond, THANK YOU for taking such great care of your brain, Lisa as you help so many others learn how they can do the same.

    • You’re welcome, Herby! Let’s hope SHD and Brain-Development curriculum can be incorporated as part of classroom messages – nothing too complicated – but wow, what that might do for children (and their parents).

  6. Lisa Neumann says:

    Lisa, This read comes at a particularly personal moment. I got sober when my kids were one and four years old. While drinking is traumatic on our kids, early recovery can be as well. Ten years later we are still recovering from my early recovery years. I had so much to learn and I knew little of how to give to them. I now have my younger one (11.5 years) in a Neuroplasticity program (4-months) and I am a already seeing a shift in her ability to process data and cope with emotional situations. I feel blessed to be present for her these days. I am eternally grateful to all of you who have dedicated your life to the betterment of humanity. Your work has made all the difference for woman like me. Thank you for teaching.

  7. […] Giving Children the Science of the Brain to Break the Cycles […]

Leave a reply