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 provide 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. These experiences occur within the child’s care giving system and include physical, emotional, and educational neglect and child maltreatment beginning in early childhood. Early traumatic experiences, anchored in these 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 children.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- The child experiences a “shattering” that causes him to dissociate and becomes immobile.
- The immense power of the interactive dance between the child and mother, and what happens to the child when the mother disengages from it.
- 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.
- 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.