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What Everyone Needs to Know About Developmental Trauma

Developmental trauma refers to the effects of traumatic early life experiences that fundamentally impact an individual's upbringing and sense of safety. Research shows that there is a significant correlation (upwards of 90%) between psychiatric disorders and developmental trauma.

That said, developmental trauma isn't always apparent, and some people may not even recognize they have this type of trauma when reflecting back on their childhood. Here's what you need to know.

What Is Development Trauma?

Development trauma is an umbrella term that describes the impacts of early, repeated traumas and/or losses that occur within a child's most essential relationships. This type of trauma is pervasive, and it doesn't always have a distinct beginning, middle, or end. That said, the severity of the trauma may have fluctuated over time, and it's normal for others to downplay its intensity or existence altogether.

Some examples of such childhood trauma include:

  • early relinquishment from birth parents, including foster care and adoption

  • sexual abuse

  • physical aggression or the presence of violence within the household

  • periods of being physically or emotionally neglected

  • multiple caregivers with inconsistent structure and stability

  • health problems and serious medical interventions

  • emotional abuse, threats, and a general sense of feeling unsafe at home

Developmental trauma is sometimes known as complex trauma, and it can lead to symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Although complex PTSD or developmental trauma disorder are not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), many mental health professionals recognize their existence and treat their symptoms. It's also estimated that many mental disorders, including personality disorders like borderline personality disorder, are rooted in childhood trauma.

Impacts of Developmental Trauma on Children

Chronic abuse, verbal or physical aggression, and issues with a primary caregiver all create a sense of disruption in a child's development. There is no doubt that it is hard to feel safe and secure when home feels so unstable and unpredictable.

Developmental trauma can affect children in the following ways:

Internalization: Children with developmental trauma can internalize what's happening to them and assume that the domestic violence or abuse is their fault. Some children turn their developmental trauma inward and may engage in habitual self-harm, disordered eating, or other forms of self-destruction.

Aggression toward others: When a child is exposed to continuous violence, they often learn that aggression provides a sense of power and control. Children diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder or conduct disorder frequently have histories of trauma.

Academic problems: Developmental trauma can impact self-esteem, concentration, and relationships, all of which may affect a child's ability to succeed in school. On the other hand, some children excel in academics because school provides a safe haven.

Early signs of mental illness: Symptoms of anxiety disorders and major depression can emerge in childhood. Even when mental disorders aren't present, trauma is associated with emotional regulation difficulties and poor distress tolerance.

Impacts of Developmental Trauma on Adults

The impact of adverse childhood experiences can transcend into adulthood. Even if you present as "functioning" on the outside, you may be struggling deeply inside. Traumatic experiences are stored within our minds and bodies, and they can affect you in the following ways:

Difficulties with trust: Interpersonal trauma, which is the root of developmental trauma, impacts trust, safety, and connection with others. When children grow up feeling hypervigilant or unsafe with their primary caregivers, it's extremely challenging to build secure relationships later in life.

Low self-esteem: Many people with early trauma also experience low self-worth. They may have a pervasive sense of shame that tells them that are bad or broken. As an adult, you may struggle to affirm yourself or believe in your own capabilities.

Abusive relationships: Intergenerational trauma is common, and many people duplicate the same domestic violence they experienced growing up in their adult relationships.

Substance abuse: People often turn to drugs or alcohol to self-medicate trauma symptoms or to numb traumatic memories from their past. Unfortunately, addiction itself can also be traumatic, which can reinforce the problematic cycle.

PTSD symptoms: PTSD symptoms range in type and severity, but they may include flashbacks, panic attacks, ruminating thoughts, relationship problems, and difficulties with focus and concentration.

Treating Complex Trauma and Developmental Trauma Disorders

No matter when your trauma occurred, your past can still affect your future. Trauma therapy can help you process your childhood experiences and improve your self-regulation and self-esteem.

It's important to look for a provider who specializes in trauma-informed care.

The right professional will be there to witness your pain, validate your experience, manage symptoms related to the trauma, and give you healthier coping mechanisms to manage stress as it arises in the present moment.

Mental Health Treatment for Trauma Survivors at Resurface Group

Growing up in a chaotic or traumatic household can have significant impacts on your physical and emotional well-being.

Trauma-informed treatment is imperative for treating developmental traumas and their associated mental health conditions. You are not just a product of your past, but it's important to heal from your past to feel better about yourself.

We help individuals and their loved ones recover from traumatic events and live more authentically. We treat substance abuse and mental health concerns for individuals throughout California. Contact us today to learn more about our dynamic programs.

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