Developmental Trauma

Developmental Trauma

What is developmental trauma?  

When a child experiences trauma in utero and/or during the first few years of their life, we refer to it as developmental trauma. This is in part because of the time scale in which the trauma occurs, but also because of the potential impact of the trauma sustained during this period on all aspects of a child’s development.  

Developmental trauma is not a diagnosis, it is a way of describing and making sense of the impact of trauma sustained during a child’s very early life. This typically involves repeated or prolonged experiences of trauma and loss, often in the context of their relationships with the people that are responsible for caring for them.  

Whilst these experiences cannot be explicitly remembered, we know that they have a significant and long-lasting impact on the developing brain and body and in that sense are ‘remembered’ by the body.  

Who experiences developmental trauma? 

Recent research has shown that even babies in utero can experience trauma, and that this can have a lasting impact on their developing brain and body. A baby may experience trauma if their mother is in a violent or abusive relationship, abuses substances, has a history of trauma herself or experiences significant and sustained stress. We now know that a significant history of trauma in the parents can even alter the unborn baby’s genetics, and that experiencing trauma during pregnancy can result in the baby being hardwired to be oversensitive to stress, and therefore vulnerable to mental health problems.  

We can be traumatized by things we experience in early childhood that we shouldn’t have, such as physical or sexual abuse. We can also be traumatized when things that we should have experienced, such as warm and nurturing care, weren’t present for us.  

What does developmental trauma look like? 

 When thinking about developmental trauma, we tend to think about the impact across these seven areas of development and functioning:  

  • Attachment and relationships – when children experience separation, loss or there are difficulties in the relationship with their caregivers they develop strategies to survive, which may affect their ability to form relationships with others in the future.  
  • Sensory motor skills – we can develop an overly sensitive sensory system, and difficulties regulating our internal experiences. 
  • Emotion regulation – our stress response system can become overactive, resulting in difficulty regulating our emotions.  
  • Dissociation – people that have experienced early trauma can become overwhelmed by their emotions and manage this by shutting down, disconnecting and dissociating.  
  • Behavioural control – Difficulty regulating our emotions can result in impulsive and sometimes destructive or harmful behaviours directed towards ourself or others.  
  • Cognition – we may develop difficulties with attention, concentration and problem solving.  
  • Self-concept –our sense of self, identity and self-esteem is often affected.  

What to do if I think I have experienced developmental trauma?  

Not everyone that experienced early trauma will be adversely affected by this for their whole life. It is complex, and there are many factors that influence the extent to which someone is affected by the trauma they experienced. For example, protective factors include experiencing sensitive, responsive and nurturing care from adults other than your primary carers such as an aunt or a teacher.  

Many people that have experienced developmental trauma go on to lead happy and fulfilling lives. However, if you feel as though you are struggling emotionally or with your mental health as a result of your early life experiences you may wish to explore psychological therapy.  

Here at Sage Clinics, we have highly trained Psychologists and Psychiatrists with expertise in working with people that have experienced trauma. We are able to offer trauma-informed care, specialist psychological and psychiatric assessment, and a range of trauma therapies, including Eye Movement and Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR).  

Written by: Private: Dr Charlotte Cousins
Clinical Psychologist, Children, Adolescent & Adults Specialist

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