Developmental Trauma: Causes, Types, and Management Strategies

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Developmental trauma: causes, types, and management strategies



Trauma, no matter what kind, can be challenging to overcome. But when a traumatic experience occurs during early childhood, it can have a different impact because of how it disrupts crucial developmental milestones.



According to the CDC, 63.9 percent of US adults have been exposed to one or more adverse childhood experiences. Statistics like these indicate a high prevalence of developmental trauma, which can lead to a different set of symptoms compared to other trauma-related disorders. Because of the effects of developmental trauma, it’s worth looking at what it means, how it affects children at different stages, and what can be done to manage it.

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What is Developmental Trauma?


The term developmental trauma is used to describe adverse childhood experiences that threaten a child’s safety, well-being, or caregiver relationships. It usually occurs as a result of different ACEs, including abandonment, neglect, food insecurity, homelessness, and unstable relationships.


This term is used to define developmental trauma disorder (DTD), a childhood syndrome that develops as a result of disrupted attachment and traumatic victimization. It’s a proposed diagnosis that covers the unique symptoms faced by people who have experienced trauma during crucial developmental stages.

Types of Adverse Childhood Experiences


Developmental trauma results from one or more incidents of traumatic victimization or adverse childhood experiences. These can include threats to a child’s sense of safety or a disruption in attachment bonding with a caregiver. ACEs are divided into three types:


  • Abuse: This includes physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
  • Neglect: This includes physical or emotional neglect
  • Household Dysfunction: This can occur due to mental illness in the family, incarcerated relatives, substance abuse, divorce, and witnessing domestic violence

Impact of Developmental Trauma

Developmental trauma can affect people at different stages of the lifecycle, from infancy to adolescence:



Infants who have experienced traumatic victimization or disrupted attachment may show the following effects:


– Difficulty putting on weight due to digestive problems and poor appetite.

– Screaming and crying excessively and being difficult to soothe.

– Displaying delayed milestones such as sitting, speaking, and crawling.

– Loss of playfulness and engagement, such as smiling.



During school age, children who have been exposed to developmental trauma may display signs such as:


– Intense mood shifts and inability to accept boundaries

– Separation anxiety and Difficulty adjusting to new environments

– Inability to trust others and build new relationships

– Aggression, impulsiveness, and acting out in social situations

– Having problems focusing in class

– Low self-confidence, which can prevent them from participating in class



Adolescents with a history of developmental trauma may turn to behaviors such as self-harm or substance abuse. These are ways to feel something when they shut down emotionally or to cope with intense emotions. Major life stressors during this period can make them susceptible to developing other disorders as well.

Challenges In Recognition and Diagnosis


Currently, there’s no formal diagnosis for DTD in the DSM, and although there are diagnoses of PTSD, the concept of trauma has evolved since then. As per the current criteria of PTSD, you’d have to experience a Criterion A stressor, which means witnessing someone’s death, facing serious injury, or exposure to sexual violence.


DTD, on the other hand, is a multifaceted diagnosis with behavioral, cognitive, emotional, and relational symptoms. Possible symptoms can include distrust of others, verbal or physical aggression, and self-harm. The purpose of a DTD diagnosis is to cover adversity not covered by PTSD. At the same time, it accounts for disruptions in development that occur due to trauma during childhood, which takes place in the context of relationships.

Differentiating Developmental Trauma Disorder From PTSD


Many children who fit the criteria for DTD are given diagnoses for behavioral disorders that don’t align with their experiences. More importantly, these children end up receiving medication and treatment used to address behavioral disorders, which don’t address disrupted attachment.


Compared to children who meet the criteria for PTSD, children with DTD are more likely to develop separation anxiety disorder, panic disorder, or oppositional defiant disorder. Researchers have also found that experiencing interpersonal trauma like attachment adversity or emotional abuse was linked to DTD symptoms as opposed to PTSD symptoms.

How Developmental Trauma Can Progress Into Other Disorders


Early ACEs, including abuse, neglect, and other trauma, disrupt healthy brain development and increase your vulnerability to chronic diseases and physical illnesses. Research shows that childhood trauma causes permanent changes to the brain due to chronically high levels of CRF, a hormone that regulates the body’s response to stress. This can contribute to anxiety, aggression, hypervigilance, and increased stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system.


Studies show that developmental trauma is linked to a number of other psychiatric disorders, such as PTSD, anxiety disorders, substance use disorder, dissociative disorder, and BPD. This is because children who experience developmental trauma are more susceptible to developing depression, eating disorders, or personality disorders later in life.

Interventions For Developmental Trauma

Despite the effects of developmental trauma, there are possible interventions to help children heal and learn healthy coping skills.

Trauma-Informed Care


The first step involves providing a child with trauma-informed care. This means acknowledging the impact of trauma on the child’s physical, mental, or emotional health. Some of the practices involved in trauma-informed care include providing a safe environment, teaching self-regulation strategies, and helping children build healthy relationships. This can encourage children with developmental trauma to become more resilient.

Evidence-Based Treatments


Some evidence-based practices, including cognitive behavioral therapy and play therapy, allow children with developmental trauma to learn healthy coping mechanisms. This can help them show better responses to stressful situations. These evidence-based practices have been rigorously tested and can equip children with skills and resilience to confront the unique challenges of developmental trauma.

Providing Support To Children and Adolescents


It’s important that children and adolescents receive support in the form of effective parenting and accommodations at school. Parents and caregivers must provide children with a safe and nurturing environment that encourages emotional regulation and healthy attachment-building. This way, children feel secure and understood during the healing process.


School support comes in the form of collaborating with mental health professionals to implement trauma-informed teaching practices. This allows children to receive a consistent and structured environment, learn effective communication, and practice better calming techniques when faced with adversity.

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