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How Developmental Trauma Affects Children and Young People

The trauma experienced by children and adolescents may have a lifelong impact on the way they develop. Known as developmental trauma, it can include a wide range of experiences such as deeply felt attachment wounds; recurring, chronic abuse and neglect; deeply felt shame, guilt, anxiety or other distressing emotions; dissociation; and impaired biological and physiological functioning. These can affect every aspect of a child’s life and development, including their physical, emotional, social and cognitive well-being.

Developmental trauma has far-reaching effects from the earliest periods of life, through critical and sensitive stages. Often these are the times when a child is developing a sense of self, connecting with other people and finding meaning in their lives. Developmental Trauma can also be passed down across generations, affecting subsequent relationships and experiences. In some cases this can lead to a diagnosis of complex trauma disorder (C-PTSD), which is based on the number of symptoms that are present and the level of impairment experienced by the person.

Survivors of developmental trauma often have a strong, fixed identity as ‘survivor’ and a desire to maintain basic safety with others. However, this can also prevent them from having the opportunities they need to grow into a more flexible and adaptive self. The identity becomes highly organized around coping and survival, and can block connection and growth with other people.

People with unresolved developmental trauma will have difficulty identifying and expressing their thoughts, feelings and needs. This can be because they do not know how to do this, or because it is difficult for them to accept that they have these. They may find it hard to be direct with their carer or other people, because they do not believe that they will get the support that they need. This can lead to miscommunication and feelings of anger, frustration and rejection.

They do not trust others, because they feel that they will only be abandoned, hurt or abused. This can lead to them keeping other people at arm’s length, or using substances and self-destructive compulsions as ways of coping with their feelings and problems. They can struggle to make healthy connections with other people and may see other people, even their therapists, as perpetrators of the original trauma.

Therapists working with people with developmental trauma use a model of brain development – called neurosequential work – to support bottom-up healing of the brain areas that have been impacted by the trauma. This can involve activities such as mindfulness and self-compassion practices, movement and exercise, creative arts such as painting, music, dance, drama and writing; nutritional psychology to manage stress hormones; and a whole host of other approaches. The end goal is for survivors to internalize a sense of safety and connectedness, have more fluidity in returning to attunement and increase their capacity to self-sustain. It is a powerful approach for those who have been through trauma, and has shown positive outcomes in those we have worked with.

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