Possible Effects Of Childhood Trauma On The Voice

We have seen how severe and protracted childhood trauma can have various adverse physiological effects such as increased production of the stress hormone cortisol, hyperventilation, and fatigue.

However, there is one possible effect of extreme, early life stress that is not often discussed, namely the effect on the voice. That the voice can be affected by childhood trauma is perhaps not surprising given that we already know the voice reacts to our emotional state, such as becoming shaky when we are nervous, tense when we’re under strain and weak, and enfeebled when we’re depressed.

In extreme cases, in fact, people have been known to actually lose their voices as a result of trauma.

The act of speaking is highly complex and involves breathing, the vibration of vocal cords (phonation), resonation (involving the changing in the shape of oral tract cavities), and lip movement.

And, because of this complexity, Monti et al. (2018) state that it is likely that the whole brain is involved in voice production including the brain stem, cortex, and limbic system (areas of the brain that research has shown can be developmentally, adversely affected by childhood trauma) and it is the effect of abuse and/or neglect on the brain that can lead to changes in voice quality and increased levels of voice perturbations.

Voice Perturbations


Voice perturbations can be defined as small changes or fluctuations in the vocal system and are sometimes referred to as microinstabilities.

Arrested Development, Regression, Care Eliciting Behavior And The Relevance Of Michael Jackson.


The emotional effects of trauma can affect the voice, too. 

For example, some adult survivors of childhood trauma may speak in a childlike voice (an example of this is the late singer Michael Jackson, who spoke openly about the physical and emotional abuse he received from his father whilst growing up and spoke and often behaved in a childlike way)  which may be due to the trauma having led to arrested development or a tendency when under stress, to regress.

It is possible, too, that speaking with childlike intonation may be an unconscious attempt to elicit caring behavior from others.

Speech-Based Algorithms

According to research by Marmar et al., (2018) it is even possible to objectively differentiate between those with PTSD and those without the condition using speech-based algorithms.

Specific Speech Disorders Associated With Childhood Trauma


Children who have suffered severe and protracted abuse during childhood may develop specific speech disorders such as:


  • Slurred speech
  • Delayed speech development
  • Reverting to baby talk
  • Stammering
  • Stuttering
  • Selective mutism
  • Psychomotor retardation – this refers to slowed speech (as well as slowed movement and slowed thinking and is also a symptom of major depressive disorder)

 These disorders may become particularly apparent when the child is under severe stress.

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE (FAHE).


Monti, Elisa; Sidtis, Diana Van Lancker. Journal of Interdisciplinary Voice Studies, Volume 3, Number 1, 1 April 2018, pp. 45-59(15) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1386/jivs.3.1.45_1


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