Why We All Need to be Aware of the 6 Signs of Developmental Trauma

Ever heard of developmental trauma? It's so prevalent among children that doctors created this new term to explain it. Read on to learn more.
Why We All Need to be Aware of the 6 Signs of Developmental Trauma
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 15 November, 2021

Ever heard of developmental trauma? For many years now, mental health professionals focused primarily on the shock extreme events cause. For example, horrible wars, car accidents, or sexual molestation. But they largely overlooked the second type of trauma that’s no less insidious, pervasive, or real. The world now knows it as developmental trauma or complex PTSD.  

Thus, developmental trauma is the result of seeming invisible childhood experiences of abuse. However, that mistreatment or abuse has been repeated many times. These cumulative experiences include verbal abuse, neglect, or manipulation by a parent, as the child has no way to control the maltreatment and no hope of escape. How’s it possible in a safe society like America, that our children are coming out of childhood in a similar state to those who went to war?

Therefore, these repeated experiences often traumatize the child. A child raised in the toxic environment of parental inconsistency and emotional abandonment suffers. Likewise, they suffer from danger or unpredictability and from “invisible trauma”. This ensures psychological and neurological disruption. While it’s fairly easy to recognize physical or sexual abuse, there’s a devastating impact when it’s at home. 

Believe it or not, having deficient or harmful parents can easily elude our awareness. Because of the difficulty in identifying the emotional damage inflicted by alienation or emotional abandonment, children suffer. Most importantly, children suffering such wounds are often left bewildered and feeling confused by their pain.

Thus, despite the hidden nature of this epidemic, there’s a growing body of research connecting many psychological problems to these injuries. For example, the chronic emotional injuries they endured in childhood. Therefore, it’s important for parents and mental health professionals to become familiar with the symptoms of developmental trauma, if there’s any hope for these children to have any hope of leading normal lives.

Crying child.

What exactly is developmental trauma?

Unfortunately, this type of trauma occurs at home. Developmental trauma is a term used in literature to describe childhood trauma such as chronic abuse or neglect. Plus, other harsh adversity in their own homes. When they expose a child to overwhelming stress and their caregiver doesn’t reduce it, or causes it, there’s trauma. In other words, the child experiences developmental trauma or adverse childhood experiences.

Most clinicians are familiar with the term post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But the vast majority of children with trauma won’t develop PTSD. On the other hand, they’re at risk for emotional, cognitive, and physical illnesses lasting their lifetimes. These are chronic family traumas like having a parent with mental illness or substance abuse. For instance:

  • Losing a parent due to divorce, abandonment, or incarceration.
  • Witnessing domestic violence.
  • Not feeling loved or that the family is close.
  • Not having enough food or clean clothing.
  • Direct verbal, physical, or sexual abuse.

In fact, psychologists extensively researched the trauma’s impact. Lastly, such a body of evidence comes from a database of over 15,000 adults. It’s now a famous study we know as the Adverse Childhood Events study.

“The true character of society is revealed in how it treats its children.”

-Nelson Mandela-

The warning signs of developmental trauma

Deep-seated shame

Firstly, the child may consistently express a sense of being defective in some way. For instance, being stupid, ugly, fat, disgusting, or permanently flawed in some other way. They may say things such as “I’m bad” to themselves. Therefore, indications of toxic self-hatred are the precursor to suicidal thoughts.

Sense that there’s no ground and powerlessness

Firstly, children suffering from developmental trauma feel they’re lacking a foundation in this world. In other words, lacking this “ground” contributes to a feeling of powerlessness. Plus, even feeling inappropriate inside their own bodies. This results in feeling vulnerable to becoming overwhelmed.

Becoming hopeless and despairing about life

Likewise, children with chronic emotional trauma develop a sense of hopelessness. They feel no one will ever understand them. This despair leads to losing the sense that life has any meaning. Lastly, faith in people and in continuing such a meaningless existence fades, leaving the child incurably despondent.  

Hyper-vigilance and inexplicable fear

Firstly, those who suffer trauma have activated amygdalas. They experience this as a constant state of arousal. This reinforces the sense of persistent danger lurking. A child who suffers developmental trauma can’t relax and is jumpy. Most importantly, they’ll have trouble staying asleep. 

Emotional regulation difficulties

In other words, the child may be persistently sad or depressed and have unpredictable mood swings. They’ll show inappropriate explosions of anger or susceptible to triggers by events. Therefore, exhibiting the inability to control emotional responses.

Feeling isolated and disconnected

Since developmental trauma has its roots in attachment trauma, the child never forms the vital parental bond. In other words, they grow up feeling unwelcome in the world. This results in chronic difficulty in feeling connected to others. Lastly, there’s both an intense need for contact and fear of contact.

Crying child.

Mind boggling child trauma stats

  • According to studies, 75-93 percent of youth entering the juvenile justice system annually experienced some degree of traumatic victimization.
  • Incarcerated women were twice as likely to report a history of childhood sexual abuse compared to those not incarcerated.
  • Likewise, half of those pregnant as a teenager has a history of childhood sexual abuse.
  • Plus, according to a study of individuals in an inpatient alcohol detoxification unit found 81 percent of women and 69 percent of men disclosed a history of sexual or physical abuse.
  • According to a study of obese patients, participating in a weight-loss program, 55 percent of them suffered from childhood sexual abuse.
  • People who experience violence as children, including physical and sexual abuse, are likely to drop out of high school. Girls by 24 percent and boys by 26 percent.
  • Lastly, between 66-90 percent of women in the sex industry were sexually abused as children.

In short, developmental trauma is a silent killer. We need to recognize the symptoms in our children to get them the help they need while there’s still time to heal their deep wounds.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Perry, B., & Szalavitz, M. (2007). The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog: And Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist’s Notebook Child Psychiatrist’s Notebook–What Traumatized Children Can Teach Us About Loss, Love, and Healing.
  • Van der Kolk, B. A. (2017). Developmental Trauma Disorder: Toward a rational diagnosis for children with complex trauma histories. Psychiatric annals, 35(5), 401-408.
  • Van der Kolk, B. A. (2017).  El cuerpo lleva la cuenta (cerebro, mente y cuerpo en la superación del trauma). Madrid: Espasa

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.