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Developmental Trauma

Developmental trauma (DT) is a term used to describe the impact of early, repeated trauma and loss which happens within a child's important relationships and usually early in life. There is further evidence to suggest that unborn babies can suffer trauma on their developing mind and body. Incidents of trauma that may occur to an unborn baby if their birth mother:

  • Was in a violent relationship with a violent relationship with a partner, friend or family member.

  • Used alcohol or other substances

  • Has a history of trauma

  • Suffered serious mental health problems or toxic stress

After birth examples can include:

  • A baby or child relinquished by birth parents.

  • A baby or child removed or relinquished from birth parents due to physical/sexual/emotional abuse.

  • Neglect - absence of sufficient attention, responsiveness, and protection appropriate to the age and needs of the child. This can feel life-threatening or fatal to a child.

    • physical - failure to provide for physical needs such as food, shelter and appropriate supervision;

    • emotional - inattention to emotional and psychological needs.

  • Living between harmful parents and safe friends/family over an extended period of time.

  • A child living with a safe and loving family who suffers sexual abuse from outside the family at a young age or who experiences multiple negative experiences such as death of a carer, bullying, physical illness.

  • Experiences of severe health problems and/or multiple medical interventions.

A child living under these conditions will mostly live in their fight/flight/freeze/collapse responses to survive the real or perceived danger they face. To adapt to this threat they develop a range of unhealthy coping strategies. They will also not develop the essential daily living skills that children need, such as managing impulses, problem solving and learning new information.

The impact to the person who has experienced developmental trauma varies greatly depending on several factors that include the nature of the trauma, the person's age and the support available. Areas that can be impacted include the following areas:

  • Sensory development

  • Dissociation

  • Attachment development

  • Emotional regulation

  • Behavioural regulation

  • Cognition (planning ahead, problem solving, organisation and learning from mistakes)

  • Self-concept and identity development (feeling they are bad, unlovable, unwanted, don't belong, and feeling others see them this way)

Even when the person is safe, their survival responses may not turn off.

Adults who have experienced childhood trauma most often continue to struggle with difficulties that may include:

  • Difficulties with attention and consciousness (e.g. dissociation, amnesia).

  • Emotional regulation (e.g. difficulties regulating anger and other emotions, self-destructive behaviours, substance use, self-harming behaviour).

  • Difficulty building and utilising healthy coping strategies.

  • Difficulty adjusting to change.

  • Seeing the world as unfair and to blame for their circumstances resulting in feelings of helplessness and hopelessness about life and relationships as well as making a positive and meaningful impact.

  • Negative self-perception (e.g. chronic sense of guilt, shame, negative self-concept, low self worth).

  • Systems of meaning (e.g. feelings of hopelessness about finding someone to understand them or their suffering).

  • Somatisation/medical (e.g. symptoms in the body).

  • Nightmares, flashbacks and/or vivid intrusive memories.

  • Relationships with others (e.g. inability to trust, inability to feel intimate, approach/avoidance behaviours).

  • Building and utilising healthy coping strategies.

  • Adjusting to changes.

A number of effective treatments, when undertaken in the right sequence, are available for developmental trauma. Recovery is possible and speaking with a treatment provider who is trained in these areas is the first step.



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