Developmental Trauma

developmental trauma

What is Developmental Trauma?

The term ‘Developmental Trauma’ describes the impact of repeated and pervasive exposure to traumatic events or loss during infancy and childhood. Young people who have experienced developmental trauma have been exposed to an environment marked by multiple and chronic stressors. Frequently, these stressors occur within a care-giving system that is intended to be the child’s primary source of safety. Such experiences (i.e., of abuse, neglect, and disrupted attachments) can have a  profound impact on a child’s later development and functioning. 

Healthy Development and The Role of Attachment

To truly understand what we mean by developmental trauma, we need to understand what healthy child development looks like. Attachment Theory plays a key role in understanding the influence of early relationships on development.  

Babies are born with an innate drive to attach to their primary caregiver. This relationship is essential for an infant’s survival. Afterall, it is our primary caregiver who attends to our physical and emotional needs in the early stages of our lives. 

From birth, infants engage in attachment seeking behaviours (such as babbling or crying). These behaviours seek to elicit a response from their caregiver; ensuring their needs are met.  For example, a baby might cry in a particular way to signal that they are hungry, and a well attuned carer can often distinguish this from a cry which is signalling pain. Similarly, a child might smile or babble. A well attuned carer will typically respond to the child and spend time engaging in ‘serve and return’ interactions with them (i.e., talking, making noises, and/or smiling back).

Diagram of a child attachment cycle

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Infant Attachment Cycle Image:

When a carer responds to these cues sensitively and effectively meets the child’s needs most of the time,  a secure attachment develops. The child grows to learn that the world around them is generally safe, that they are worthy of care, and that they can trust others to help them when they need. 

Why does this matter? 

A child who feels safe and secure can confidently go out to explore the world around them, knowing they have a safe base to return to should they need it. When things get tough, and they experience difficult emotions, a well attuned carer will welcome them back with comfort and support; helping to calm them by engaging in co-regulation. For example, rocking a young child to soothe them. These repeated experiences of co-regulation help the developing child to learn ways to effectively regulate their own emotions. As such, they are likely to develop healthy ways of expressing and managing their emotions as they age.

And it doesn’t stop there! Our early relationships have a significant impact upon a whole range of developmental domains (social, emotional, physical, psychosexual, cognitive etc). This is supported by a wealth of research which shows that positive developmental outcomes (including things like an individual’s self-esteem, social competence, and their ability to make and maintain relationships with others later in life) have all been linked to the quality of their attachment relationship with their primary caregiver (see, for example, van der Kolk, 2005). 

The Impact of Developmental Trauma on Brain Development

When a child experiences developmental trauma and their needs are not met consistently by a sensitive and attuned carer, they develop an insecure attachment to their caregiver. As a result, the child develops beliefs about the world around them (e.g., ‘the world is unsafe’, ‘scary’ or ‘dangerous’) and other people (e.g., ‘other people are untrustworthy’, ‘unpredictable’ and/or ‘not able to effectively meet my needs’).  The child is also likely to develop negative beliefs about themselves, such as ‘I am unworthy of care’, or ‘I am not good enough’. As such, these early relational experiences form the basis of how the child experiences the world around them, and how they learn to navigate future relationships with others. Infant Trauma Cycle

Infant Trauma Cycle Image:

When in a state of stress, the brain releases cortisol (a stress hormone), and our ‘fight/flight/freeze’ system is activated to try to protect us from harm. When this state is activated over long periods of time and the child is living in a constant state of high alert, they become what we might call ‘hypervigilant’. The hypervigilant child’s brain is so heavily focused on surviving a scary, dangerous, and chaotic world, that there is little room for learning or social and emotional development. The Two Story Brain: The "Upstairs" and "Downstairs" of Your Mind

Learning social skills or developing helpful ways to manage our emotions, for example, all require our thinking or “upstairs” brain, which is “turned off” when we feel under threat. As a result, prolonged or repeated exposure to “toxic stress” can have a long-term impact on the child’s health and brain development. 

Potential Signs and Indicators of Developmental Trauma

Often, children who have experienced developmental trauma and attachment disruptions are labelled as ‘naughty’, due to the behaviours they exhibit. There are a vast number of ways that repeated exposure to traumatic events/ chronic stressors early in life might manifest in a young person’s behaviour. Some examples might include: 

  • Having difficulty understanding the feelings of others. 
  • Having difficulty focusing or concentrating. 
  • Telling lies and blaming others. 
  • Denying behaviours. 
  • Engaging in inappropriate or sexualised behaviour. 
  • Showing aggression or violence.
  • Engaging in self-harming behaviours.

It is important to remember that all behaviour is a means of communication, and it is therefore vital that we look behind the behaviour to understand what is driving it. For children who have experienced developmental trauma, their behaviour is often driven by fear and anxiety, as well as a deep-rooted sense of shame. 

Relational Trauma requires Relational Repair’ (Dr Karen Treisman)

When a young person has been affected by developmental trauma, implementing a therapeutic and trauma informed approach is key to helping them to develop safety and security within their relationships with carers. Nurturing these healthy attachments is vitally important because it is within these relationships that the child can begin to heal from their early traumatic experiences.

At Meadows Psychology Service, we work with a range of childcare providers to share our specialist knowledge of trauma informed care, grounded in our understanding of attachment and developmental trauma. We provide tailored, bespoke packages of support to a number of childcare providers who want to develop specialist psychologically informed services, including: 

  • Children’s Residential Services
  • Supported Accommodation (16+) Providers
  • Education Provisions 
  • Fostering and Adoption Services 

We also provide support to individuals and families. 

To find out more about how Meadows Psychology Service can help you, please get in touch via our online form.

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