Developmental trauma is the result of abandonment, abuse, and neglect during the first three years of a child’s life that disrupts cognitive, neurological and psychological development and attachment to adult caregivers. Developmental trauma, a new term in the field of mental health, has roots in both developmental psychology and traumatology. Developmental trauma is inflicted on infants and children unconsciously and most often without malicious intent by adult caregivers who are unaware of children’s social and emotional needs.

The Cause of Developmental Trauma

Figure 1.6 Schore

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. Young children, particularly infants, are extremely sensitive to breaks in the shared resonant field of energy with their caretakers, particularly their mothers.

If these disconnects happen too many times or for an extended period during the first year of life, children learn not to trust that adults will care for them. This is the critical factor in disturbed attachment and can lead to attachment disorders and other relational disturbances in adulthood. Unfortunately, most adults do not recognize or perceive these relational disconnects as traumatic, but see them as normal because they happen to everyone.

Our Definition of Developmental Trauma

Our definition of developmental trauma recognizes the chronic effects of subtle emotional disconnects that often draw no attention from adult caregivers. Because developmental trauma is “invisible” to adults, they aren’t able to provide comfort and soothing to relieve children’s symptoms. 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.

shocked  babyEvents 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. The image to your left shows a child in a state of developmental shock.
Early traumatic experiences, anchored in seemingly “ordinary” events, hard-wire children’s brains and nervous systems for a life built around trauma. The primary goal becomes avoiding anything that might trigger the memory of an experience involving developmental trauma and the underlying emotional stress associated with it. When children are unable to avoid these triggers, they react by trying to flee or fight. This is the most common cause of hyperactive behavior in young children.

Developmental Trauma: A Family Pattern

Unfortunately, most parents have not been educated about children’s social and emotional needs, so they lack skills for supporting their child emotionally when they become upset. As children, parents also never fully experienced emotional attunement with their own parents. So it’s difficult for them to respond to their children’s needs for nurturing, protection, safety and guidance in timely and appropriate ways. Many parents also do not correlate the deficiencies in their own experiences of being parented with their own day-to-day struggles to effectively parent their own children.

The Dance of Attunement vs. Developmental Trauma

A 1986 documentary, Life’s First Feelings (NOVA, 2000), is based on research investigation on children’s early emotional development. You can see a short clip from this documentary at YouTube. The segment shows a child experiencing developmental shock in the “cold mother” experiment.

The first part of Dr. Tronick’s experiment is an excellent illustration of the infant-mother dance of communication. The next part of the experiment, however, contains something that would not be done today because we now understand that it causes experiences of shock, trauma, and stress in infant research subjects.

Screen Shot 2015-07-05 at 5.53.57 PMThe part of Tronick’s “cold mother” experiment in which he asks the mother to keep a blank face and not respond to her child’s attempts to engage with her shows a child experiencing developmental trauma.When the baby recognizes that his mother is not going to respond to him,  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. What you are seeing in this video is an infant experiencing a SHOCK state. Tronick does not understand that the look of terror on the infant’s face, the change in his eyes, or his hiccup are signs of shock. He does remark about the child’s loss of bodily fluids (also a sign of shock) and then he shifts the focus.

Developmental Shock, Trauma & Stress

♦ This short video segment illustrates four important points. The first point is the 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. He 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.

He 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. The experiment becomes a shattering experience for this small boy who dissociates and becomes immobile.

♦ The second point the video illustrates is the immense power of the interactive dance between the child and mother, and what happens to the child when the mother disengages from it.

♦ The third point it illustrates is 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. Then he attempts to re-regulate himself by looking at his hands and then into shock when his mother does not respond to his efforts to engage.

♦ The fourth point is that this video segment demonstrates is 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. These are the primary components of what we call the trauma continuum, which we describe briefly in the next section.

Preventing Developmental Trauma

By definition, developmental shock, trauma, and stress are inflicted on infants and children unconsciously and most often without malicious intent by adult caregivers who are unaware of children’s social and emotional needs. Infants and children require energetic attunement; skin-to-skin, eye-to-eye, and right brain-to-right brain contact; kind and comforting words; and protection and safety during gestation, birth, and the first 3 years of life.

Most adults, including many mental health professionals, have not been educated about these needs, and many lacked these personal experiences of emotional attunement when they were children. Adults also do not correlate these developmental deficits with the day-to-day struggles they experience in their lives. Consequently, they are unaware when they are shocking, traumatizing, or stressing their own children and are not able to recognize the symptoms of developmental shock, trauma, or stress in themselves, their children or others.

Developmental Trauma Becomes A Political Issue

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. These experiences often occur within the child’s care giving system and include physical, emotional, and educational neglect and child maltreatment beginning in early childhood.

The authors of the new DSM-V edition, released in 2014, proposed including Developmental Trauma Disorder as a new diagnostic category that would encapsulate diagnoses such as bipolar disorder, ADHD, PTSD, conduct disorder, phobic anxiety, reactive attachment disorder and separation anxiety. Dr. van der Kolk, who spearheaded this effort, estimates that as many as 8 million children in the U.S. have been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder and/or ADHD and prescribed large doses of medication. He believes, however, that the cause of these problems is disrupted attachment and untreated emotional abuse and/or neglect.

The proposal to include Developmental Trauma Disorder has become quite controversial. Never before in the history of revising the DSM had a sub-committee submitted so much documentation to support a diagnostic revision. After much discussion and controversy, the DSM Committee rejected the proposal.


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

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