What is developmental trauma?
Developmental trauma is a type of trauma that can occur, if, in childhood, an individual is subject to continual abuse or neglect. Its name comes from the fact that experiencing adverse events at a young age affects the individual’s development. As children – especially between infancy and the age of six – our brains are still developing. If at a young age we find ourselves continually frightened or stressed, the development of our brain – and in turn our entire physiology – will be disrupted.
Counselling and therapy for trauma can be very beneficial for dealing with developmental trauma.
How environment affects development
The optimal environment for infants and toddlers is one that is safe and predictable, with caregivers that are loving and accessible. In this environment, healthy development of the brain follows a particular sequence. First to develop are the lower regions of the brain, such as the amygdala and hippocampus. This part of the brain – also known as the reptilian brain – is dedicated to ensuring our survival, controlling functions such as our stress response. The upper regions of the brain are next to develop. This area of the brain is responsible for executive, cognitive functions, such as sense-making or the exercising of moral judgement. Normal development of the upper regions of our brain – and, therefore, our entire physiology – requires normal development of the lower.
When the lower brain perceives a threat to survival, it floods the nervous system with danger-signaling hormones. If this happens too often, beyond a level that is normal, these hormones create immense stress, disrupting optimal sequential development of the brain. Therefore, the child that is raised in an unsafe, unpredictable environment with inconsistent caregivers, is in danger of suffering psychological and neurological disruption. At risk is any child exposed to neglect; abandonment or fear of abandonment; bullying by peers; abuse – psychological, physical, or sexual; to the witnessing of such abuse; or to any combination of the above. Exposure to such events can result in a wide variety of symptoms.
What are the symptoms of developmental trauma?
There is considerable overlap between the symptoms of PTSD and developmental trauma. Symptoms typical of PTSD – emotional dysregulation, re-experiencing, and avoidance – are commonly observed in developmental trauma. To find out more about the most common symptoms of trauma, click here. Some symptoms more specific to developmental trauma, specifically as a result of parental neglect/abuse, are discussed further below.
Numbing in childhood
A young child has no way to control the abuse she suffers. The child, lacking any ability to advocate for herself, without the physical strength to fight back, with little hope of escape, can neither fight nor flee. Her only option, therefore, is to freeze; to numb her emotions. The advantage of numbing is that it offers the child a means of coping where none other exists. The disadvantage is that, as she goes through life, she remains stuck with an understanding of a world that is unsafe. It is from this viewpoint that she sees the world. The bonds she forms in childhood will provide the template for how she, as an adult, relates to herself and to others. Therefore, if in childhood, at the time of her most intense vulnerability, her trust is broken by those closest to her, her worldview will suffer.
Imagine the child who is repeatedly criticised and verbally attacked by an abusive parent. She will form a set of negative, rigid beliefs that prevent her from viewing herself as a competent and lovable adult. Her beliefs will serve to warn her also of the dangers of love and intimacy; that what applies as a young child will apply to all intimate relationships.
Similarly, the child who does not have her feelings validated – or is constantly attacked, or consistently ignored – will be unable to separate her parents’ neglectful attitude or anger from her own sense of self-worth. Because as a child she lacks an adult’s intellectual sophistication, she tends to associate her parents’ attitudes with herself; ‘If my parents aren’t interested in me or are angry at me, it is because there is something fundamentally wrong with me. It is because I’m not good enough’.
If we suffer a deficit in forming the vital parental bond, we will likely grow up feeling unwelcome in the world. We will have difficulty forming connections, not just with others, but with ourselves. The resulting sense of loneliness and isolation will, in turn, create an intense need for intimate contact and – at the same time – a fear of such intimacy. In attachment theory this is known as ‘insecure attachment’, the opposite of ‘secure attachment’. In turn, insecure attachment is divided into one of two attachment styles: ‘insecure avoidant’ or ‘insecure anxious’.
Although the avoidant and anxious types, both driven by a powerful fear of rejection, have much in common, they are two manifestly different types. In short, the avoidant type isolates, the anxious type becomes needy.
Insecurity and its discontents
The avoidant type struggles to trust in and rely on other people. His lack of faith in other’s good intentions makes it impossible for him to ask for help or to accept it when offered. Thus, his rejection of others results in an obsessive self-reliance. Shut off from others – and from his own feelings – he seldom achieves healthy, intimate relationships.
Because he seems inaccessible, indifferent, or distant – traits not usually considered attractive – he may have difficulty entering and maintaining relationships in the first place. When he does find himself in a relationship, he often deploys a form of relational pre-emptive strike; he abandons his partner before they abandon him.
The anxious type, on the other hand – burdened with the sense of inadequacy that comes from believing there is something inherently wrong with her – works hard to be noticed. Her interior world devoid of self-compassion, her self-esteem low, she seeks constant validation from outside to feel worthy of love and acceptance. She becomes a co-dependent perfectionist, a people-pleaser who finds it hard to say no.
Her negative thinking and low self-esteem eventually turn everything into a challenge. Any behaviour that requires self-confidence – making changes, creating new habits, meeting new people – becomes a source of unease or panic. Furthermore, her anxiety – because it crushes motivation – gets in the way of her personal, social, and professional achievement. Her lack of achievement only serves to confirm her beliefs, creating a negative feedback loop. Relationally, when through her neediness she pushes others away, she merely creates another feedback loop, further confirming her beliefs, further compounding her feelings.
Therapy for developmental trauma
The above symptoms – just a snapshot – are ones that you may recognise in yourself or in others. They can be traced back to developmental trauma in early childhood. When we fail to form an optimal bond with our caregivers, or when our caregiving environment induces anxiety, neurochemical imbalances will occur. These imbalances – a lack of bonding hormones, or an excess of anxiety-inducing ones – then result in the cognitive, behavioural, and relational symptoms that may seem all too familiar.
But here is the good news. Restructuring of traumatic symptoms and beliefs is possible. Trauma-informed psychotherapists and psychologists provide an environment for trauma therapy in which such restructuring can take place, in which the avoidant type learns to confront that which he avoids, the anxious type that which she fears. It is possible, therefore, that, through trauma therapy, the individual with an insecure attachment type can find their way to secure attachment, developing the positive sense of self-esteem they never received in childhood, and undoing the effects of developmental trauma.
Certain types of trauma therapy deal specifically with trauma. For example, trauma-focused CBT or EMDR, a process using rapid eye movements to reduce the effects of trauma. At Centric Mental Health, members of our team of psychotherapists and psychologists are trained in a range of trauma therapy technique.
If you would like to arrange a consultation with one of our trauma-informed therapists, please do not hesitate to fill out the Request an Appointment form on this page, or get in touch to find out how we can help you.
Find out about other trauma-related difficulties here.