Developmental Trauma Disorder Is Not As Complex As It Sounds

By Nicola Kirkpatrick

Updated December 07, 2018

Developmental trauma disorder is often confused with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Let's look some examples to see the differences.


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.

Developmental Trauma Disorder is Exposure to Chronic, Multiple Traumas

PTSD is a mental health disorder that occurs after a life-threatening event, like Susie's car accident. Susie's anxiety will likely be triggered by the sights, sounds, and smells of the accident scene.

As a victim of child abuse and neglect, and living in a violent community, Ben's traumatic experiences are traumatic like Susie's. Unlike Susie, Ben is a victim of chronic, multiple traumas.

Developmental Trauma Disorder Affects Brain Development

Children's brains develop all throughout childhood and into their young adult years. 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.

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 to adult caregivers.

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.


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.

Therapies for developmental trauma disorder also help children to deal with triggers caused by the traumatic events and develop better self-regulation skills, without re-entering a state of "fight, flight, or freeze."

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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