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What is Developmental Trauma?

Developmental Trauma is the result of a child experiencing abandonment, neglect, abuse, or chronic stress in their own home.  Overt abuse and neglect can clearly have profound impact on a child, but what many don’t realize, is that hostility, pervasive stress, and chaotic environments can also be considered developmental trauma. 

What makes developmental trauma so widespread is that often it is not inflicted by parents who are consciously trying to maliciously abuse their children.  Instead, it is often parents who are unaware of how important their intentional attention (or attunement) is to their child’s growing brain. 

Parents who are distracted, stressed out, or angry are not able to be completely present and resonate with their child in a relational way.  These breaks in attunenment can be very disturbing to an infant and continues to be harmful as the child grows.  Our brain’s healthy development depends on our caregivers being attuned with us. 

What is Attunement?

What this means is that babies need their mothers, fathers, or caregivers to be available, present, and attuned to them so that they can meet their needs.  When an infant’s need is noticed and met by a caregiver in a timely and loving manner, this establishes a sense of security within that child. The infant/child not only learns that their parent (caregiver) is dependable, but that at their core, they themselves are worthy of love and attention.  Their brain literally creates new neural pathways formed on the premise that they are ok, loveable, and able to get their needs met by others. 

On the other hand, if a parent/caregiver misses their baby’s cues and therefore misses needs too often, developmental trauma occurs.  The brain builds neural pathways formed on the premise that they are not okay and others aren’t safe, can’t be trusted, and can’t meet their needs. 

Why is this so important?

Dr. Bruce Perry, a leading expert on childhood trauma, explains: “That very same sensitivity that makes you able to learn language just like that as a little infant makes you highly vulnerable to chaos, threat, inconsistency, unpredictability, violence.  And so children are much more sensitive to developmental trauma than adults.”  Perry explains that these children’s brains are indeed wired differently.  He notes that one out of every eight children suffers enough trauma to cause lasting damage.

The origins of Developmental Trauma

Because we know that with developmental trauma parents are often not intending to be malicious or cause harm, it begs the question how and why parents are still contributing to developmental trauma.  In many cases, parents are doing the best they can with the tools they were given, and often they are parenting the way they themselves were parented: without a focus on nurturing emotions.  Many parents were taught that their emotions were not okay and shouldn’t be displayed.  If they didn’t grow up with parents who nurtured and responded compassionately to their emotions, they have little knowledge or experience to draw from when it comes to responding to their own child’s emotions. 

Did you experience Developmental Trauma?

One way to find out is to take the ACE test which stands for Adverse Childhood Experiences.  Keep in mind that the ACE score is meant to be a guideline.  If you experienced other types of toxic stress over months or years, it is likely that you’ve been impacted negatively by those experiences.

If you have experienced developmental trauma, know that there is hope.  Trauma Informed Care and other interventions such as EMDR can bring profound healing and relief. 

Want to learn more?

Oprah just did a special report on 60 Minutes on Developmental Trauma.  You can watch it here: