What Is Developmental Trauma?

The term, Developmental Trauma, refers to seemingly ordinary, normal or subtle daily events that involve relational ruptures between children and their caregivers that are either too long or too frequent with no repair.  Keep in mind that it takes almost twenty-six years for a human brain to develop. The brains of babies and young children, particularly infants, are extremely sensitive to the duration and intensity of these ruptures. It’s important to understand that emotional development is much earlier than cognitive and intellectual development, therefore, without repair, babies, infants and young children develop adaptive strategies to cope with the distress of disconnection, rejection and alienation. When the child or young person’s distress is overwhelming, especially when their caregivers are the source of the distress, e.g. high conflict couples, including witnessing physical assaults, these strategies lose their adaptive function and interfere with behaviour, rather than facilitate behaviour. Dysregulation causes a breakdown in the child’s capacity to process, integrate, and to categorize what is happening.  At the core of traumatic stress is a breakdown in the capacity to regulate internal states. Even after the stress has subsided, their ability to concentrate on tasks that require focused attention may be significantly compromised, resulting in poor academic achievement and often a misdiagnosis of ADHD, ADD and Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD).

In the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study (1990), researchers found that the effects of childhood trauma first became evident in school. More than half those with ACE scores of four or higher reported having learning or behavioural problems, compared with three percent of those with a score of zero.

What Behaviours Are Considered Mal-adaptive?

When children are not able to achieve a sense of control and stability, they become helpless, unable to trust self, or other and may move between states of Fight, Flight, Freeze and Submit/Shame. For some children, their default position may be one of the above survival strategies or a combination of the four. The following information is adapted from one of the world’s leading experts in the field of traumatic stress, Janina Fisher, Ph.D.

The Fight Strategy may appear as irritability, uncontrolled anger, judgemental and controlling behaviors, bullying siblings and or other children.

The Flight Strategy may take the form of deliberately spending long periods of time in their room avoiding intimate contact with family. Others, particularly young people, may develop an addiction to computer games, food, pornography or drugs.

The Freeze Strategy is a survival strategy that protects the child from a caregiver or sibling whom they believe could be dangerous. It may also be that their sense of identity is not well established, so they prefer not to be seen or heard. By avoiding conflict and or attention, they are more often bystanders or passengers in classroom, family and peer discussions. As they age, there is a tendency for these individuals to develop a depressive disorder.

The Submit/Shame Strategy is one where the child / young person may feel ashamed of how they have behaved. They may be filled with self-hatred and feel the need to apologies profusely to a caregiver they have offended. A short time later, they may revert to the fight strategy and cycle between Fight-Submit. It can also be used as a single strategy by an individual who is not at all aggressive. The child or young person may have learnt that to gain their caretakers love and support, their interest is best served by them (the child) being the ‘good girl or boy’ who engage in self-sacrificing and caretaking behaviours.

In adulthood, as a way of reducing chronic stress, any one of these strategies could transform into addictive behaviors such as, drug and alcohol abuse, gambling, eating disorders, obesity, sexual promiscuity, emotional instability, including poorly controlled anger. There is also a highly significant relationship between adverse childhood experiences and depression, anxiety, suicide attempts and domestic violence. According to research conducted by Kaiser Perman, (1998) In the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study, “the more adverse childhood experiences reported, the more likely a person was to develop heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, skeletal fractures, and liver disease”, (Bessel A. vander kolk, 2010).

What is Emotional Resilience? And Can We Learn to Become More Emotionally Resilient?

Emotional resilience is having the ability to fluidly shift between states of joy, sadness, anger, etc., as the social environment changes, rather than being stuck in a state of let’s say, anger or a depressed mood. If we want to become more emotionally resilient, then it’s important to learn how to develop a skill referred to as Mindfulness. Mindfulness is learning to be curious about whatever state or mood one is in at any given moment. We learn to ask questions like: What’s the quality of my self-talk? How long have I been thinking this way? What feeling/s is attached to this self-talk? What is my inner body experience in the here and now? How am I breathing? Where am I holding tension? What are my triggers? The more connected we are to our own emotional and mental states and to the ways in which our bodies adapt to particular states, the easier it is for us to understand the emotional and mental worlds of others.

As Lara Boyd (a brain researcher from the University of British Columbia) makes very clear on a recent Ted Talk (see Resources tab bottom of page) ….” The primary driver of change in your brain is your behaviour. There is no neuroplasticity drug you can take. Nothing is more effective than practice at helping you learn”. She goes on to say, “The bottom line is…. you have to do the work “.  You have to make a commitment to yourself, no one else. Mindfulness is a skill that requires daily practice. It’s not something you do for a week or two, then expect the skill to automatically appear whenever you’re stressed or overwhelmed. The more you practice, the more mindful you become and the easier your emotions become to regulate.

If you would like to learn more about developmental trauma then please contact us by phone or email via the ‘Contact Us’ tab and one of our consultants will get back to you to discuss your concerns.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) (DSM-1V)

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder may result from a person having experienced, witnessed or been confronted with an event, like a robbery, , sever domestic violence, sexual assault, natural or manmade disasters, automobile accident or war, that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury to self or others and where their response was intense fear, helplessness or horror.

What are the Symptoms of PTSD?

The traumatic event must persistently be re-experienced in one or more of the following ways:

(a) Recurrent and intrusive distressing recollections of the event, including images, thoughts

(b) Recurrent distressing dreams of the event; in children it might be frightening dreams that have nothing to do with the event he or she experienced

(c) Acting or feeling as if the traumatic event were recurring, i.e. reliving the experience, illusions, hallucinations and flash-back episodes including those that occur on awakening or when intoxicated; in children they may re-enact the trauma

(d) Intense psychological distress and physiological reactivity (increase in heart rate, blood pressure, trembling) on exposure to something or someone in the environment that symbolizes or resembles an aspect of the trauma

(e) Persistent avoidance of any stimuli associated with the trauma, for example, conversations about the trauma, places, activities or people that remind you of the trauma

(f) Feeling detached from others, inability to recall an important aspect of the trauma, loss of interest in significant activities

(g) Difficulty falling or staying asleep, irritability or outbursts of anger, difficulty concentrating, hypervigilance (watchful) and easily startled

If you or someone close to you has experienced a number of the symptoms outlined above for more than one month, then it’s important that you contact a mental health professional as soon as possible.

Delayed Onset: In some cases, a person may not experience any symptoms until six months after the traumatic event.

Acute: If duration of symptoms is less than 3 months

Chronic: If duration of symptoms is 3 months or more

If you believe you or someone close to you is experiencing any of the above PTSD symptoms, then don’t hesitate to contact us and arrange an appointment.