Developmental Trauma Disorder Is Not As Complex As It Sounds

By Nicola Kirkpatrick

Updated January 24, 2019

Developmental trauma disorder is often confused with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, there are some important differences. For example, developmental trauma disorder is a condition that affects children while PTSD can affect anyone at any age. In addition, PTSD can be caused by any type of traumatic episode from being exposed to combat, terrorism, or being in a natural disaster such as a hurricane, flood, or tornado. But developmental trauma disorder is typically caused by chronic childhood abuse or neglect. Let's look some examples to see the differences.


Developmental Trauma Disorder is Exposure to Chronic, Multiple Traumas

Five-year-old Susie survived a car accident where her mother was tragically killed. Five-year-old Ben lived in a rough neighborhood with street gangs. Ben's mother drank alcohol to deal with her own fears about the violence, and his father often beat him. These two situations may have both happened to these children of the same age but they are very different. For instance, Susie's incident was a one-time thing while Ben's was a chronic situation he was exposed to on a daily basis.

PTSD is a mental health disorder that occurs after a life-threatening event, like Susie's car accident. Susie's anxiety will most likely be triggered by the sights, sounds, and smells of the accident scene. She may be afraid to get in a vehicle and may need to get some kind of therapy to help her such as exposure therapy or play therapy. By slowly exposing Susie to riding in a vehicle again and showing her that nothing is going to happen to her every time she gets into a vehicle, she is going to be able to let go of those fears eventually.

However, as a victim of child abuse and neglect, and living in a violent community, Ben's traumatic experiences are distressing like Susie's but his situation is different. Unlike Susie, Ben is a victim of chronic, multiple traumas. Ben's circumstances are different because he is still experiencing the traumatic situation and he is being let down by his parents or guardians, causing him to build a distrust of adults. This can cause an abnormal need for control of everything and everyone in Ben's life in the future. In fact, even if Ben is taken out of his situation right away, he is still likely to have lasting effects because of the chronic abuse and trauma he experienced.


Developmental Trauma Disorder Affects Brain Development

Developmental traumas are also referred to as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). These include abuse and neglect such as physical, emotional, or sexual abuse and any type of household disfunction such as violence in the home, alcoholism, drug abuse, divorce, and mental illness. Children's brains develop all throughout childhood and into their young adult years. Any kind of trauma that repeatedly occurs during childhood affects brain development, because the brain goes into a state of "fight, flight, or freeze" to protect the child's body through repeated traumas. Children aged five and younger are especially susceptible because this is the age that they are developing most rapidly.

The results can be devastating for children. Children with developmental trauma disorder typically have symptoms of PTSD and a host of additional symptoms like affect dysregulation, mood regulation, anger, aggression, self-injury, and suicidal ideations. Changes in the brain affect children's development and their ability to attach and trust their adult caregivers. In a study done by Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control found that almost a third of those who had developmental trauma disorder-related symptoms as adults had a parent or caregiver in the home that abused alcohol or drugs and 26% of them were exposed to some type of physical abuse.

Lack of Trust in Adults Leads to the Need for Control

Children who have been chronically neglected or abused learn early on that adults will not provide their basic needs of food, clothing, warmth, and shelter, so they must learn to provide it for themselves. Learning to become self-reliant affects their ability to trust adults. Not being able to trust adults manifests in a child who feels like he or she must be in a constant state of control because being in control helps the child reduce anxiety and feel safe. Children with developmental trauma disorder will go to great lengths to gain control. Common behavior includes lying, stealing, manipulation, destructiveness, and cruelty.


Adults who parent or work with these children need to understand that developmental trauma is at the root of these behaviors, and it isn't how the child would normally act under better caregiving circumstances. If your child has a constant fear of losing control of situations, they are going to become more and more controlling and less trusting of those around them. For example, if your child is living with constant violence or neglect, they are going to try to control other things in their life that they can control and most of them go on to try to control other things that they are not meant to control such as other people's behavior.

Treatments for Developmental Trauma Disorder

Treatments for developmental trauma disorder focus on establishing safety and competence. Therapies like play therapy help children to work on their emotional responses in a safe, predictable environment. From there, they can put their skills into a larger context as they learn to transfer those skills to their relationships with adult caregivers and others. This type of treatment can teach children self-regulation skills such as helping them see how they have dealt with the trauma they have experienced. They are then taught creative ways to deal with trauma by getting out of the survival mode that most typically is a result of developmental trauma disorder.

Children Can Heal from Traumatic Experiences

The good news about developmental trauma disorder is that as long as the brain continues to develop, children have the chance to retrain their brains to develop better responses. Treatment for trauma takes a long time, but with support and consistency, children can heal. Learn more about developmental trauma disorder at BetterHelp.

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