Developmental Trauma Disorder Is Not As Complex As It Sounds

By: Jessica Anderson

Updated November 23, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Kelly L. Burns, MA, LPC, ATR-P

Experiencing any type of trauma can be extremely challenging. However, understanding more about trauma can help you get the help you need, so you can be happier, healthier, and overcome your trauma.

A disorder called developmental trauma disorder (DTD) is very common, even though many people are not familiar with it. In this article, we'll discuss developmental trauma disorder, including how it differs from PTSD, and the best ways to treat it.

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What Is Developmental Trauma Disorder And How Does It Differ From PTSD?

Developmental trauma disorder often develops when someone is exposed to multiple chronic traumas. To better understand this, let's consider two examples. First, we have five-year-old Samantha. She survived a severe car accident, but she broke several bones, leaving her traumatized by the experience. On the other hand, five-year-old Ben lived in a rough neighborhood with street gangs. His mother drank alcohol to deal with her own fears about the violence, and his father was physically abusive. In both cases, children of the same age were traumatized in a way that affected their development, but Samantha's incident was a singular trauma, while Ben's situation was a chronic problem that affected him on a daily basis. Over time, Ben developed DTD due to repeated exposure to these distressing scenarios.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) occurs after a single life-threatening or traumatic event, like Samantha's car accident. Samantha developed anxiety and other PTSD symptoms that would become triggered by the sights, sounds, and smells of the accident scene. She was also afraid to get in a vehicle and needed professional help, such as exposure therapy or play therapy, to safely explore and sort through these issues. By slowly exposing Samantha to riding in a vehicle again, a therapist showed her that vehicles can be safe and that her incident is unlikely to repeat itself, so she could recover from PTSD.

On the other hand, Ben's traumatic experiences were different, so he needed a different type of treatment to recover. Unlike Samantha, Ben was a victim of multiple chronic traumas and therefore had developmental trauma disorder. In addition, his circumstances were different because he was unable to leave the traumatic situations, and he was let down by his parents or guardians, causing him to distrust adults. As a result, he developed an abnormal need to control everything and everyone. In fact, even if he had been removed from his situation, the chronic abuse and trauma he experienced would likely still have had lasting effects because it began so early in his childhood and lasted for some time before he was able to get out of the situation. That's why he needed an extensive treatment plan over the course of several years. Luckily, it was possible for him to heal from DTD with treatment.

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What Are The Effects Of Developmental Trauma Disorder?

Developmental traumas are also referred to as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). They include abuse and neglect, such as physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. They also include any type of household dysfunction, such as domestic violence, alcoholism, drug abuse, divorce, and mental illness.

Children's brains develop throughout childhood and into the young adult years. Any kind of trauma that repeatedly occurs during childhood affects this brain development as the brain repeatedly enters a state of "fight, flight, or freeze" to protect the child. Children under five years old are especially susceptible because they are developing more rapidly than older children.

The results of developmental trauma can be devastating for children. Children with developmental trauma disorder typically have symptoms of PTSD. In addition, they often struggle with mood regulation, anger, aggression, self-injury, and an unhealthy need for control. Furthermore, changes in the brain affect their development and their ability to trust their adult caregivers. A study done by Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control found that almost a third of adults who had symptoms related to developmental trauma disorder had a parent or caregiver in their home who abused alcohol or drugs. The study also found that 26 percent of these children were exposed to physical abuse.

Common Traits In Developmental Trauma Disorder Survivors

Children who have been chronically neglected or abused learn that adults will not provide for basic needs, such as food, clothing, warmth, and shelter. In this case, they must learn very early to provide for themselves, so they become self-reliant and are hesitant to trust adults or rely on other people. They also learn that they have to be in control of their surroundings to survive, and they carry this need for control into their adult life, even when it's no longer helpful or necessary. That's why children with DTD will sometimes go to great lengths to gain or maintain control. They may even resort to lying, stealing, manipulation, destructiveness, and cruelty, all of which are common traits of someone with this disorder.

"A licensed therapist can help you process past trauma in healthy ways, so that you are able to move forward without symptoms of trauma weighing you down. Both research and personal stories show that online therapy is an effective treatment option for trauma."

If you've gone through trauma, it's important to remember that these traits are not a part of your personality or who you are in general. They're simply symptoms of the challenges you've faced in the past. With the right help, you can move past these symptoms and become the person you've always wanted to be. Although traumatic childhoods are sadly common, there is hope, and you're not alone. Many have gone before you, and they've proven that it's possible to overcome traumatic events from the past and have healthy, fulfilling lives.

Treatments For Developmental Trauma Disorder

As long as the brain continues to develop, children can retrain their brains to develop better responses. In fact, the brain of a child can heal from trauma more easily than the brain of an adult. Treatment still takes time, but with support and consistency, children can heal.

In general, treatments for developmental trauma disorder focus on establishing safety and competence. For example, therapies like play therapy help children process emotional responses in a safe, predictable environment. Then, children learn to transfer those skills to their relationships with adult caregivers and other people in their lives. In addition, this type of treatment can teach children self-regulation skills and help them see how they've dealt with the trauma they’ve experienced. Once they understand how they've responded in the past, a therapist can help them identify creative ways to deal with life's natural struggles by getting out of survival mode and using healthier coping mechanisms.

Treating Developmental Trauma Disorder Survivors As Adults

If you experienced ongoing trauma as a child and never received help, don't worry. You may be experiencing the effects of DTD, but there is still hope. Even as an adult, you can learn to move forward, reducing the pain you feel and improving your quality of life no matter how long it’s been since the trauma occurred.

Are You Living With Developmental Trauma Disorder?
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Talking to a counselor is the best way to start your healing journey. When you work with a professional, they can create a unique treatment plan for your unique situation. They can also offer you techniques, expertise, and resources to help you recover and find happiness. A licensed therapist can help you process past trauma in healthy ways, so that you are able to move forward without symptoms of trauma weighing you down. Both research and personal stories show that online therapy is an effective treatment option for trauma. 

You may read the study here: A therapist-assisted cognitive behavior therapy internet intervention for posttraumatic stress disorder: Pre-, post- and 3-month follow-up results from an open trial.

If you have a busy schedule or struggle to find the motivation to attend therapy appointments, you may want to try online counseling. With BetterHelp, there's no need to sit in traffic or take time out of your day to drive across town. Instead, you can speak to your counselor from the comfort, safety, and privacy of your own home. Below, you'll find reviews of BetterHelp counselors from people experiencing similar issues.

Counselor Reviews

"Christina has been so extremely helpful for me. She has guided me to better myself, to build a strong foundation, helped me know my self-worth, and to know that I am an individual and strong by myself. She has helped me process and move past my traumas. Because of her guidance, I am a 10x better version of myself."

"Billie is WONDERFUL!!!!!! She's kind, responsive, caring, validating - everything I could ever hope for in a therapist. I came from a very abusive, traumatic childhood that still influences who I am, and Billie is helping me undo that damage. She answers me every day, responds to everything I write to her, and always answers my questions. When I get stuck, she nudges me forward with gentle suggestions that I can use or not. She's respectful and gentle ALWAYS! I feel like I'm making so much progress with her, and I feel so, so, SO lucky to have her!"

Moving Forward

Developmental trauma disorder is different than PTSD, but it's not as complex as it sounds. It's simply the lasting effects of ongoing childhood trauma. If you suffered through a traumatic childhood, remember that there is hope. With help from an experienced counselor, you can move forward from your painful past and begin to live a happier, healthier life. Take the first step today.


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