What is Developmental Trauma?

Many people who arrive in my practice tell me that they do not have a trauma history, yet consistently experience issues such as fear of intimacy, multiple failed relationships, self-esteem struggles or repeated challenges in the workplace. Although an increasingly bright spotlight has been shining on the topic of trauma in the last several years, there persists a misunderstanding of the spectrum of trauma and its effects. Trauma can mean the classically-billed single incident type, such as an assault, a car accident or a mass shooting, But it can also refer to repeated events over time, that may seem less impactful, yet can have an equally devastating effect on our functioning. Growing up in poverty, unsure if basic needs will be met, or growing up as any kind of minority in which ongoing microagressions are present, would both be examples of this. In the psychology world we refer to single incident trauma as Big T, and repeated trauma as little t. Beyond this, there exists another kind of trauma, that can be insidious and covert: developmental trauma. 

In our earliest years, we require caregivers who are consistently loving, safe and accessible to us. In this kind of environment, our brain is able to develop in a healthy way, and we can reach developmental milestones that reinforce that the world and its people are generally predictable, and safe. If we are fortunate enough to have caregivers that attune to us and effectively meet our needs, we are able to navigate developmental stages that build a sense of trust, autonomy, adequacy, ability to maintain intimacy and healthy self-belief.

Often, caregivers are not able to provide young children with the kind of environment that fosters this, due to the shortcomings in their own environment growing up or their own adverse life events. Emotional invalidation occurs when caregivers minimize a child’s needs, ‘It’s no big deal, you don’t need to cry!’, shut down a child’s needs, ‘Stop crying!’ or withdraw affection in an effort to manipulate or control (conditional love.) Children can be led to believe that they only have value if they perform or look a certain way, ‘It’s straight As or the highway, buddy!’ Intrusive parenting, in which the child is not allowed their own opinion, or indulgent parenting, in which limits are not upheld, can both cause problems in self-concept. The birth of a sibling with a high level of need, inconsistency of caregivers, childhood hospitalizations and other early losses can also impact development. 

In graduate school, we were posed the question, ‘How does a fish know it’s wet?’ The answer, of course, is that it doesn’t - it is swimming around in the pond unaware, unless it leaves the water and gets a different perspective. So it is with developmental trauma: emotional neglect or abuse is not always intentional on the part of the caregiver, leading us to believe that the environment we grew up in is ‘normal’. But current symptoms often tell a different story. When we are not able to feel successful in relationships, work and life, it can frequently be a sign of an environment in which something was ‘off’, despite the best intentions of our family. 

In my practice, I specialize in repairing just this kind of challenge. Through relational consistency, neurobiological repair and insight, I support clients in overcoming developmental trauma, so that life is not just about surviving…but thriving.