What is developmental trauma and how does it affect the child’s development and behaviours?
According to one group of experts,
Developmental Trauma is the term used to describe the impact of early, repeated abuse, neglect, separation and adverse experiences that happen within the child’s important relationships.”
Lyons, Whyte, Stephens, & Townsend, 2019, p 1.
Developmental trauma may manifest in a variety of ways and impact the child’s biopsychosocial development, for example:
- their ability to regulate their thermostat;
- cognitive problems and learning disabilities;
- speech and language difficulties or delays;
- auditory problems;
- issues with their sensory integration / sensory processing disorder;
- limiting their ability to be aware of the thoughts, feelings and desires of others;
- dissociation, which means they are not ‘present’ – they seem to be day dreaming all the time, they miss things, and they don’t learn from experience because their mind is elsewhere.
- impulsive behaviour, or the opposite – compulsive behaviour, where they do the same thing rigidly over and over again.
- difficulty with transitions eg moving from one classroom to another, or from one activity to another as it makes them feel that they are losing their bearings.
- ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder);
- ODD (oppositional defiant disorder);
- Bipolar and personality disorders (especially borderline personality disorder);
- PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder).
How Does Developmental Trauma Occur?
Developmental trauma may occur in children who experience teachers, therapists, child safety officers, social workers, agency support workers, doctors or even parents or family members as perpetrators – people who hurt them. This may not always be intentional – carers may have the best motives, and the child’s welfare at heart, but the child perceives it as abuse.
In his research, Dan Hughes has suggested that the impact of this sort of trauma, can be much more severe than that suffered should the child be bitten by a dog, fall from a horse or experience physical abuse.
Home should be the safest place in the entire world for any of us. However, when a child perceives the care and guidance of a family member of parent, as traumatic or even abusive, it is then much more difficult for them to accept and comprehend that other caregivers are going to be different.
As a result, the child has difficulties trusting or forming attachments with other adults, such as new caregivers/foster carers, and also struggles to handle their own emotional regulation and stress.
When we are overwhelmed with stress, this impacts our psychological and biological states. In a child with developmental trauma, this could mean that they may not know when they need to go to the toilet; if they are hungry or full; if they are in pain or may have unintentionally hurt themselves (eg they might break their leg and not even realise it).
Children with developmental trauma may become extremely volatile, as their fear has progressed to terror, sadness morphed into despair, and anger into rage.
The Outcomes of Developmental Trauma
Developmental trauma affects the way a child thinks, feels and relates to the world, and they will often resort to safety seeking behaviours, and blocking trust, in an attempt to protect themselves from further pain.
1 – Safety Seeking Behaviours:
Children with developmental trauma don’t feel safe, which can lead them to focus narrowly on things (tunnel vision).
Because they feel that they are in constant danger, they may become hyper-vigilant and react negatively to triggers such as loud sounds, footsteps, appearance, smells, and postures.
Children require assistance to express their fears and feelings when they do not feel safe, and struggle to discuss them with their parents, teachers or other caregivers.
This is where a new therapist may be able to help. The child may open up with somebody ‘new’, especially if it is somebody trained and experienced in working with children impacted by developmental trauma, able to help them feel that they are in a safe space.
It is believed that children with developmental trauma have difficulty processing external information, but also have no real awareness of their internal world either.
As the child’s feelings of safety grow, their awareness and other areas of their brain become involved in learning about the world. They are able to think about and identify:
- What they think, feel and want?
- What they wonder about?
- What’s special to them?
- What they like, and what they don’t like.
2 – Blocked Trust:
Children with developmental trauma struggle to allow themselves to feel safe, due to the feelings of rejection (whether it was intended or not) that they have experienced in the past.
A child may disassociate to cope, and find ways to pretend that they are okay. They become very self-sufficient, to minimise their reliance on anyone else because they do not want to feel the pain of rejection again.
In order to help a child with developmental trauma, it is important to ensure that the child feels safe enough to be sad.
Until the child is willing to allow themselves to be sad, they will not be open to the comfort which they desperately need, and comfort is crucial in developing an attachment.
In the early years, infants and toddlers desperately need the attention of their parents and other caregivers, through:
- Positive touch;
- Eye contact; and
- Verbal interactions.
If they feel they aren’t receiving this, over time a child will stop expecting to get these needs met, and will develop coping strategies such as repetitive self-soothing, self-calming obsessions and compulsions. By learning to rely on themselves exclusively – rather than other people – a child with developmental trauma doesn’t have to deal with the pain of hope disappointed. They keep others at arm’s length because they feel that getting close is going to lead to abandonment, rejection or abuse.
Instead of forming friendships, a child with developmental trauma sees their peers and siblings as competitors, as they feel there isn’t enough love and affection to go around. They might assume that a parent, caregiver or teacher will choose every other child over them.
A child that is blocking trust may exhibit behaviours such as:
- A chronic readiness to defend and over-react.
- Seeing the negatives rather than the positives.
- Mindlessness – it is hard to get them engaged and interested because they have given up learning, having convinced themselves that the same pattern is going to repeat.
- Focusing on objects rather than relationships.
- Cutting their inner life off from others, and avoiding showing signs of vulnerability.
A child with developmental trauma will find it difficult to be direct or open about what they think, feel or want. Not only do they struggle to identify these things for themselves, they are also fearful that if they express their wants and feelings, they are making themselves vulnerable. They do not have the assumptions that others will meet their needs.
If you are caring for a child with developmental trauma, you may find it helpful to read my other article on this website about “Blocked Care” which looks at this issue from a caregiver’s perspective.
Author: Vishal Patel, M Social Work, AASW, AMHSW.
Vishal Patel is an Accredited Mental Health Social Worker, with significant experience in working with victims of trauma, abuse and violence. His area of interest includes addressing significant complex and challenging behaviours in children under the age of 12 years. He is able to provide therapy in English, Gujarati, Hindi and Urdu.
To make an appointment try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call M1 Psychology Brisbane on (07) 3067 9129.
- Lyons, D., Whyte, D., Stephens, R., & Townsend, H. (2019). Developmental Trauma Close Up. Retrieved 20 August 2019, from http://www.citethisforme.com/cite/website.
- Kraybill, O. (2019). What Is Developmental Trauma?. Retrieved 20 August 2019, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/expressive-trauma-integration/201808/what-is-developmental-trauma
- Baylin, J., & Hughes, D. (2016). The neurobiology of attachment-focused therapy (pp. 1 to 16). New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
- McLean, S. (2019). The effect of trauma on the brain development of children. Retrieved 20 August 2019, from https://aifs.gov.au/cfca/publications/effect-trauma-brain-development-children
- Rockville, M. (2014). Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioural Health Services Understanding the Impact of Trauma. Retrieved 20 August 2019, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK207191
- Elliott, A. (2019). Blocked Care – The Child Psychology Service. Retrieved 21 August 2019, from https://thechildpsychologyservice.co.uk/advice-strategy/blocked-care/
- Baylin, J. (2019). Children’s Blocked Trust: How Compassionate Care Helps Reverse the Effects of Early Poor Care. Retrieved 27 August 2019, from https://www.nacac.org/resource/childrens-blocked-trust-how-compassionate-care-helps-reverse-the-effects-of-early-poor-care/