Developmental Trauma Disorder Is Not As Complex As It Sounds

Updated March 13, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

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 among people who have experienced past trauma, even though many people are not familiar with its description. In this article, we'll discuss DTD, including how it differs from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and the best ways to treat it.

The Human Brain Is Capable Of Healing From Past Trauma

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

DTD 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. Samantha survived a severe car accident, and broke several bones, resulting in trauma. On the other hand, five-year-old Ben lived in a neighborhood overrun by violent gang activity. Ben’s mother drank alcohol to cope with their own fears about the violence, and Ben’s 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 chronic. Over time, Ben developed DTD due to repeated exposure to distressing scenarios.

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. Samantha was also afraid to get in a vehicle and needed professional help, via 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 them that vehicles can be safe and that the incident is unlikely to repeat itself, so they could recover from PTSD.

Ben's traumatic experiences were different, and thus required a different type of treatment to recover. Unlike Samantha, Ben was a survivor of multiple chronic traumas and therefore had DTD. In addition, Ben’s circumstances were different because they were unable to leave the traumatic environment, and did not receive adequate support from their parents or guardians, causing distrust in adults. As a result, Ben developed an abnormal need to control everything and everyone. In fact, even if Ben had been removed from the situation, the chronic abuse and trauma they experienced would likely still have had lasting effects because it began so early in their childhood and lasted for some time before they were able to get out of the situation. That's why Ben needed an extensive treatment plan over the course of several years. Fortunately, it is possible to heal DTD with treatment.

What Are The Effects Of Developmental Trauma Disorder?

Developmental traumas are also referred to as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), which include neglect and different forms of abuse (i.e., physical, emotional, or sexual). ACEs also include any experience of household dysfunction, such as domestic violence, alcoholism, drug use, divorce, and mental illness.

Children's brains develop throughout childhood and into their young adult years. Children under five years old are especially susceptible because their brains 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 control, anger, aggression, and an unhealthy need for control. Furthermore, changes in the brain affect their development and ability to trust 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 DTD had a parent or caregiver in their home who demonstrated symptoms of substance use disorder. 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 experienced chronic abuse or neglect 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 often 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.

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 help, you can move past these symptoms and become the person you've always wanted to be. Although traumatic childhoods are common, there is hope, and you're not alone. Many have proven that it's possible to overcome traumatic events from the past and maintain 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 DTD 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 managed the trauma they’ve experienced. Once they understand how they've responded in the past, a therapist can help them identify creative ways to meet life's natural struggles by getting out of survival mode and using healthier coping mechanisms. 

The Human Brain Is Capable Of Healing From Past Trauma

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.

Talking to a counselor is an excellent 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.   In one study, researchers used an internet-based cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) approach to treat 22 participants with a diagnosis of PTSD. At post-assessment, 69.2% of the sample demonstrate clinically significant improvements in their symptoms, and 77% exhibited these improvements at a follow-up assessment. 

An additional benefit from this study – and many others like it – is that online interventions typically take less time to achieve desired outcomes than in-person treatment modes. Using an online therapy platform like 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 and safety of any location with reliable internet connection. Once you take the initial questionnaire, you’ll receive a therapist match within 48 hours, and you can schedule an appointment at a time convenient for your schedule. No need to sit on a wait list or limit appointments to a weekly, biweekly, or monthly structure. If you’re curious about how BetterHelp can assist you in overcoming DTD or other unresolved traumatic experiences, consider reading the reviews below of BetterHelp counselors, written bypeople who have experienced 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!"


Developmental trauma disorder is different than PTSD, but it's not as complex as it sounds. It's simply the echos of ongoing childhood trauma.. 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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