Developmental trauma is a breakthrough term that draws from both the fields of developmental psychology and traumatology. Developmental trauma is unconsciously inflicted on infants and children and most often without malicious intent by adult caregivers who are unaware of children’s social and emotional needs. Our definition of developmental trauma recognizes the chronic effects of subtle emotional events that draw no attention from adult caregivers and no relief for children’s symptoms.

About Developmental Trauma

Developmental trauma is caused by seemingly ordinary, normal or ‘subtle daily events that involve relational and energetic disconnects between children their mothers that are either too long or too frequent. Unfortunately, most adults do not recognize or perceive these relational disconnects as traumatic, but see them as normal because they happen to everyone.

Researchers in children’s mental health have typically focused on more extreme traumatic events of an interpersonal nature that involve sexual or physical abuse, war, community violence that happen early in life. They would recognize a that the child in the photo as  traumatized, because the wound is both visible and extreme.

Early traumatic experiences, anchored in subtle and seemingly ordinary events, hard-wire children’s brains and nervous systems for a life involving social and relational trauma. Children learn to avoid anything that might trigger the memories of emotional disconnects and the underlying emotions associated with them. When children are unable to avoid these triggers, they react by trying to flee or fight. The fight/flight instinct is the most common cause of hyperactive behavior in children.

Listen to Dr. Allan Schore talk about the “attachment” aspect of developmental trauma:

Differentiating Between Shock & Trauma

We believe that many who are using the term developmental trauma are actually referring to developmental shock and that they are not discriminating between shock and trauma. Events involving shock are much easier for mental health and medical professionals to recognize because the causative events associated with it are often extreme enough to draw their attention.

Many traumatologists use the term Complex Trauma to describe experiences of multiple and/or chronic and prolonged experiences of chronic interpersonal trauma in the context of inadequate caregiving systems that delay development. This includes diagnoses such as bipolar disorder, ADHD, PTSD, conduct disorder, phobic anxiety, reactive attachment disorder and separation anxiety.

 What Infants Need to Prevent Developmental Trauma

Infants and very small children require emotional synchronizing, brain-to-brain attunement, skin-to-skin and eye-to-eye contact, kind and comforting words, protection and safety from their mother during gestation, birth and the first years of life. Unfortunately, most parents have not been educated about children’s social and emotional needs and lack skills for supporting their child emotionally when they become upset.

It is rare for parents to have fully experienced emotional attunement with their own parents when they were children. This makes it difficult for them to respond to their needs for nurturing, protection, safety and guidance in timely and appropriate ways. They also do not correlate their deficiencies in their own parenting experiences with their own day-to-day struggles to effectively parent their own children.

What Developmental Trauma Looks Like

Here is a video clip taken from a 1986 NOVA film, Life’s First Feelings, illustrating the importance of the mother-child relationship in the early development of a child’s personality (NOVA, 2000).

The video features chief investigator Dr. Edward Tronick, who describes an interactive dance of communication that happens between an infant about the age of 5 months and his mother.

After watching it, see the comments below. You may want to watch it a second time after reading our comments.

In this video, a series of things to happen very fast’so quickly that they are almost invisible. First the pupils in the boy’s eyes dilate, then his eyes bulge, and his face becomes blank. Then he has what looks like a severe hiccup, and finally he vomits a little bit.

Tronick does not comment about the look of terror on the infant’s face, the change in his eyes, or his hiccup. He does remark about the child’s loss of bodily fluids and then shifts the focus. An announcer in the background asks the question, If this response occurs in the laboratory, what happens when infants are emotionally deprived over long periods of time.

This short video segment illustrates six important points.

  1. The difference between developmental shock, trauma and stress. This process begins in the first part of the experiment when the invasive mother over-stimulates her child. The child shows signs of developmental stress and then flees his mother’s overstimulating behavior by looking at his hands and self-soothing, at which point he then attempts to reengage with his mother.
  2. The first shows signs of disorientation during the cold mother experiment when he is unable to reengage her in their dance. Then he quickly drops into a state of developmental shock that is visible in the dilation of his pupils, his bulging eyes, his blank facial expression, his hiccupping, and finally his vomiting.
  3. The child experiences a “shattering” that causes him to dissociate and becomes immobile.
  4. The immense power of the interactive dance between the child and mother, and what happens to the child when the mother disengages from it.
  5. How few resources this child has to cope with a mother’s disengagement and how rapidly this causes him to move from stress into trauma. He tries to re-regulate himself by looking at his hands, then goes into shock when his mother does not respond to his efforts to engage.
  6. The sequences of state-shifting from developmental stress, into developmental trauma, and then into developmental shock; from higher-order brain functions to more primitive defensive responses contained in the limbic system and reptilian brain; and from newer parts of the autonomic nervous system to the older.

NOVA Video Series (2000). Life’s First Feelings. Boston, MA: WGBH.

Recognizing Symptoms of Developmental Trauma in Children

shocked babyRecognizing the symptoms of developmental trauma in children can be difficult. The symptoms of developmental trauma are more subtle and therefore often invisible to the untrained eye.

In infants, symptoms of developmental trauma include a panicked look in the infant’s eyes, a frantic searching for the mother’s face, repeated nonverbal attempts to engage the mother in some way, inconsolable crying, retching and vomiting–all of which are signs of deep emotional distress.

What to Look For:

It is possible to look at the faces of very young children and see the suffering in their eyes, faces and body language. This immediately indicates that something painful is happening in their inner world. Children with mothers who are attentive and attuned to their needs look happy and secure, while others show anxiety, uncertainty and may even look depressed and act withdrawn.

After age three, developmental trauma appears as difficulties with the give-and-take aspect of relationship. Children may have difficulty sharing or may cling to adult caregivers. These children get caught in their struggle to have “enough” of something, which is often a sign that their early bonding needs have not been met. In both younger and older children, the predominant behavioral symptoms of developmental trauma are hypervigilance and emotional overwhelm.

Diagnosing Developmental Trauma

Symptoms of developmental trauma in children also can be identified through biochemical markers such as increased cortisol levels. A large number of scientific studies now indicate that developmental trauma causes difficulties in learning effective coping skills, attention and other kinds of learning problems, impaired immune systems and difficulties in engaging in meaningful social relationships.

Developmental traumas also create hyper-sensitivity to the loss of the energetic connection with their mothers. By this I mean that children recognize when their mothers disengage from them, even though they may be physically present. Children can feel when their mothers are emotionally present and when they are not.

These situational sensitivities create relational “triggers” that gradually wire the child’s psyche, brain and nervous system to anticipate and cope with stress. Developmental trauma is the primary cause of the the avoidant and anxious/ambivalent forms of insecure bonding sometimes referred to as “disturbed attachment.”

Types of Disturbed Attachment

As children get older, there are often sufficient behavioral criteria visible for making mental health diagnosis for Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD). The RAD diagnosis has two different varieties: the Inhibited Type, in which the child withdraws and “acts in,” which correlates with the avoidant form of insecure bonding; and the Disinhibited Type, in which the child “acts out,” which correlates with the anxious/ambivalent form of insecure bonding.

The new diagnostic category, Developmental Trauma Disorder, recognizes RAD and other childhood diagnostic categories such as bipolar disorder, ADHA, PTSD, conduct disorder, phobic anxiety, reactive attachment disorder and separation anxiety. This new category does not address the subtle kinds of relational trauma that we focus on.

At a behavioral level, the most common symptom of Developmental Trauma in children is hyperactive, out of control behaviors that repeatedly test the limits of the adult caregivers. This testing of limits is the primary way that children determine who is in charge in their environment the adults or the children.

Limit Setting

Limit-testing is a actually way that children use to show adult caregivers that they do not feel safe, and that they are wanting them to set and enforce limits. Unfortunately, limit-testing is perceived as “misbehavior” and adults go into punishment mode.

child having tantrumWhen children do not feel safe, they learn a myriad of ways to take charge of their environment. They have tantrums and use aggressive, demanding, oppositional and defiant behaviors. These are designed to intimidate and control the weak or ambivalent adults around them, as a way of determining if the adults are really in charge.

The most effective route is setting clear limits and then providing consequences that help reinforce the limits. The more consistently limits are enforced, the more that children feel safe. When children feel safe and relinquish control of their environment, they are free to learn and grow.

Safety is Critical For Development

Children who live in consistently unsafe environments may continue to grow physically, but socially and emotionally they will be delayed in their development. Most importantly, they will not learn to trust others to meet their needs, which will cause problems in their intimate relationships–particularly their ability to parent.

When adults do not explain the rules for behavior and social interactions and the consequences for breaking these rules, children do not feel safe. Children only feel safe with rules that protect them from harm and when there are consequences in place for those who violate the rules. In fact, children’s misbehavior is really a way of forcing adults to set limits.

Here’s a checklist of symptoms of developmental trauma that you can download and print out.


Learn more about developmental trauma!

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