Understanding Developmental Trauma

Published on 19th June, 2021 by Dr. Sanveen Kang

Understanding Developmental Trauma

What is Developmental Trauma?

Developmental trauma is used to describe exposure to multiple, chronic and prolonged developmentally adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).

Understanding Developmental Trauma

Children develop concepts of self, others and the world based on their interactions with their parents/caregivers. When caregivers respond consistently to children’s emotional needs and are able to calm them down, they are said to have a secure attachment with their caregivers.

Understanding Developmental Trauma

The ability to self-regulate is also dependent on the development of relevant brain areas.

Understanding Developmental Trauma

Effective co-regulation leads to the deactivation of this system and child returns to a calm state where s/he is able to engage in reasoning and process emotions. Lack of co-regulation or prolonged exposure to chronic trauma means child is left in a constant of arousal (i.e. in “fight, flight or freeze” mode). Hence unable to process emotions or effectively regulate themselves.

How would a child with developmental trauma present?

  • As child is in a constant state of arousal, they may present themselves as hyper-vigilant and guarded or “tuned out” and emotionally numb. This also means they may be easily overwhelmed and may have difficulty calming down when upset. In certain scenarios this may present as a child “overreacting” or being unresponsive and detached. For example, a child who is easily frustrated and behaves aggressively when unable to comprehend his/her school work.

  • As child may struggle with self-regulation and may lack impulse control, their behaviour may seem unpredictable and volatile. For example, they may react defensively and aggressively to perceived threats at one time and may seem rigid, over controlled and unusually compliant at another. For older children or adolescents, they may also engage in high-risk behaviours or activities that break the law (i.e. being sexually promiscuous, shoplifting or being involved with drugs).

  • Children who have experienced ACEs may have difficulties with problem solving, reasoning and being able to plan or organize. They may have trouble with sustaining attention and be easily distracted, especially in face of perceived threats. They may show deficits in language development and abstract reasoning skills as they may struggle to acquire new skills or take in new information.

  • They may suffer from body dysregulaton, meaning they over-respond or under-respond to sensory stimuli. This may present itself as hypersensitivity to sounds, smells, light or even touch. Alternatively, some children may seem unaware of pain, touch or internal physical sensations. Some may also have recurrent or chronic somatic complaints such as headaches or stomachaches.

  • When a child has been repeatedly abused or neglected, they often blame themselves. They may experience shame, guilt and feeling of hopelessness. They may experience a diminished sense of competency, low self-esteem and poor self-image, as they feel powerless to change their circumstances.

  • Most children who are abused or neglected have difficulty forming a healthy attachment to a caregiver. This translates to them struggling to form healthy relationships with peers and significant others.

  • As they are more vulnerable to stress, they may have trouble controlling and expressing emotions. This may mean them reacting violently or inappropriately to situations, resulting in difficulties in their relationship with others.

Dr. Sanveen Kang

About the Author - Dr. Sanveen Kang

Dr. Kang is a Clinical Psychologist by training and has more than 14 years of experience in treating mental and physical health issues for clients in hospitals, private practice, educational and corporate settings.

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