Recognizing Symptoms of Developmental Trauma in Children
Recognizing 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to their needs look happy and secure, while others show anxiety, uncertainty and may even look depressed and act withdrawn.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-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.
When 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.