On an episode of The Walking Dead the group’s leader, Rick, postulated that the zombie-filled post-apocalyptic world is easier for children to cope with because they don’t remember the world the way it used to be. That’s an interesting theory as it cuts to the heart of how child and adult brains cope with trauma and heal afterwards.
Let’s put Rick’s theory to the test: Do kids in the zombie apocalypse really have it easier than the adults?Requisite spoiler alert. If you have not watched The Walking Dead season five, episode 10 and do not want to be spoiled stop. Turn back. Here there be spoilers. You have been warned …
If we’ve spent our childhood in a loving and stable environment, chances are our adult brains have developed relatively normally. Most importantly, our brains have learned normal and established patterns of functioning. When extreme stress disrupts the normal adult brain (say, with the loss of a loved one, the sleep deprived first few months of parenthood, job loss), the brain wants to reestablish those normal patterns.
Serious problems occur when the adult brain is repeatedly exposed to trauma (say, watching zombies kill your loved ones over and over, and then watching your loved ones rise again as zombies themselves) and it isn’t able to reestablish those normal patterns once the threat has passed. This is most commonly known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD means the brain is unable to recognize it is no longer in a high-stress environment and doesn’t need to maintain a state of hyper arousal, emotional numbness and replaying the traumatic event. Right now those states and behaviors are actually helping the adults survive in the apocalypse, but not without doing major emotional damage.
The developing brain is much more plastic (meaning easily changed by repeated stimuli) than the adult brain. This means the trauma from the zombie apocalypse has likely interrupted Carl’s normal brain development at key phases.
Multiple studies have shown repeated exposure to traumatic events in childhood results in more complex symptoms in adulthood, compared to traumatic events endured as adults. What this means is that an adult who has experienced a traumatic event is likely to present with symptoms that are more easily recognized as PTSD. But if the event was experienced as a child, the patient is likely to present with additional symptoms along with PTSD that can mask or delay an accurate diagnosis once he or she is grown. These symptoms can include eating disorders, self-harm and generalized anxiety.
This means that if Carl survives to see a zombie-free adulthood, he’s likely to experience much more severe and complex psychological impacts of his time in the zombie apocalypse than say, Rick, Dale or Carol.
Even before she was born, Judith had it rough. Her mother Lori experienced severe stress and poor maternal care during pregnancy which can significantly impair brain development in the growing fetus.
I can’t be the only parent that marvels at how quiet and still Judith is and how she never seems to grow up. Until I started researching this article, I’d chalked this up to a writers’ oversight. But it seems Judith may be a victim of her environment. Infants that endure high levels of stress can experience delays in developmental milestones like vocalizing, walking and tracking objects. Their growth can also be
Judith is obviously too young to understand what is happening around her, but the constant loud noises, violent movements, frightening images and unpredictable adult behavior are sensory stresses for infants. On top of that, she hasn’t been able to form attachment bonds with the adults in her life: her mother died in childbirth, she was separated from her first primary caregiver Beth when the prison was attacked, and then lost her second primary caregiver when Tyreese was killed.
Most importantly, Judith’s brain is keenly plastic and seeks to establish those normal patterns. But her infant brain is being bombarded with environmental stresses it doesn’t have the capacity to process. While on the surface Judith seems to have it easy being carried around in a sling, she actually likely has the most difficult existence out of the entire group, and will suffer the longest-lasting effects.
While Rick’s intuition is usually spot-on, he’s way off on this one. The kids don’t have it easier in the post-apocalyptic zombie-filled world than the adults do, and they likely will have a harder recovery.
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Cloitre, M., Stolbach, B., Herman, J. et al. A developmental approach to complex PTSD: Childhood and adult cumulative trauma as predictors of symptom complexity. Journal of Traumatic Stress. 22(5). 2009. Retrieved February 22, 2015.
National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. (2005/2014). Excessive Stress Disrupts the Architecture of the Developing Brain: Working Paper 3. Updated Edition. Retrieved February 22, 2015.
Slykerman, R., Thompson, J., Clark, P., et al. Determinants of Developmental Delay in Infants 12 months. Journal of Pediatric and Perinatal Epidemiology. 21(2) 121-128. March 2007. Retrieved February 22, 2015.
US Department of Health and Human Services. Administration for Youth and Families. Understanding the Impact of Maltreatment on the Brain. ChildWelfare.gov. 2009. Retrieved February 22, 2015.
National Child Traumatic Stress Network. Effects of Complex Trauma. Retrieved February 22, 2015.
Kolb, B., and Gibb, R. Brain Plasticity and Behavior in the Developing Brain. Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. 20(4). November 2011. Retrieved February 22, 2015.