Developmental Trauma Disorders: Understanding Symptoms And Treatment

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry
Updated February 19, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include abuse which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Free support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.
Note: Developmental trauma disorder was proposed to be included in the DSM-5 in 2013 as a condition outlining the unique impacts of childhood trauma. However, it was rejected and is not an official diagnosis. Despite this, some people may relate to the proposed symptoms, and it may be useful as a tool for understanding trauma. 

Experiencing any trauma can be challenging. However, trauma in childhood may have unique impacts due to the developmental milestones children go through. A proposed mental illness called developmental trauma disorder (DTD) describes these unique symptoms that people who have experienced childhood trauma might confront. Although rejected in its submission to the DSM-5, developmental trauma disorder can have real mental health symptoms and may be connected to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in adults and children.

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The human brain is capable of healing from past trauma

What are developmental trauma disorders, and how does it differ from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?

DTD was proposed as a condition to describe the type of trauma that develops from repeated traumatic events during a developmental age in childhood, often around the ages of four to nine. Below is an example. 

Example: Samantha and Ben 

Consider five-year-old Samantha. Samantha survived a severe car accident and broke several bones, resulting in trauma. Five-year-old Ben lived in a neighborhood overrun by violent activity and constant gun fights. Ben's mother used substances to cope with her fears of 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. However, 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 that resulted in childhood trauma.

What is the difference between DTD and PTSD?

PTSD often occurs after a single life-threatening or traumatic event, like Samantha's car accident. Samantha developed anxiety and other PTSD symptoms triggered by the accident scene, sights, sounds, and smells. Samantha was also afraid to get in a vehicle and needed professional help via exposure or play therapy to explore and sort through these issues safely. By slowly exposing Samantha to riding in a vehicle again, a therapist showed her that vehicles could be safe. 

The proposed model of DTD is similar to what some may call complex PTSD (C-PTSD), which involves repeated exposure to traumas over a lifetime. However, unlike complex PTSD, DTD is specific to the developmental period in childhood in which children are most impacted. In the example of Ben, more time was required to recover, and Ben's trauma became a significant part of his personality. Ben's circumstances were different because he could not leave the traumatic environment and did not receive adequate support from his family. 

It may be possible to treat complex traumas like DTD or C-PTSD in children and adults. After being removed from a traumatic environment, individuals may require intensive care and professional support. Many people with these conditions may use substances or dissociative compulsions to cope. 

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What are the effects of developmental trauma disorders?

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

Children's brains develop throughout childhood and into their young adult years. Children under five are especially susceptible because their brains develop more rapidly than older children. The results of developmental trauma can be devastating for children. Children with developmental trauma disorder often experience symptoms of PTSD. In addition, they may struggle with mood control, anger, aggression, and a need for control.

Changes in the brain affect children's development and ability to trust adult caregivers. A study 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% of these individuals were exposed to physical abuse as children. 

Common traits in survivors of developmental trauma disorders

Children who have experienced chronic abuse or neglect learn that adults cannot provide for basic needs, such as food, clothing, warmth, love, and shelter. In this case, they may learn from an early age to provide for themselves, becoming self-reliant and hesitant to trust others. They also learn that they must be in control of their surroundings to survive and carry this need for control into their adult life, even when it's no longer necessary. 

Some adults or children with these symptoms or other signs of complex trauma may resort to lying, stealing, manipulation, destructiveness, and cruelty to gain control over a situation when they feel trapped or triggered by their traumas. 

If you've gone through trauma, these traits are not part of your personality. They're symptoms of the challenges you've faced in the past. With help, you may move past these symptoms and feel clearer about your life path. Although traumatic childhoods are common, there is hope, and you're not alone. Many people have overcome or used their trauma to become resilient and help others. 

Treatments for developmental trauma disorders

Children can retrain their brains to develop healthier responses if the brain continues to develop. In addition, the brain of a child can heal from trauma more easily than the brain of an adult. Treatment can take time, but with support and consistency, children may find healing. Other factors, including case management, removal from the unsafe environment, emotional support, love, and a support team, may also be necessary. 

Treatments for DTD often focus on establishing safety and competence. For example, play therapy with a trauma-informed mental health professional may help children process emotional responses in a safe, predictable environment. Children can learn to transfer their 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. 

Getty/AnnaStills
The human brain is capable of healing from past trauma

Support for adults with developmental trauma

Adults can receive support for DTD, PTSD, or C-PTSD as well. Even if you do not have a diagnosis, therapy is a safe space for you to discuss your childhood. No matter how long it has been since your trauma occurred, including if it is still happening, you can talk to a professional about moving forward.

When you work with a professional, they can create a unique treatment plan for your situation. They can also offer techniques, expertise, and resources to help you recover and cope. A licensed therapist can help you process past trauma in healthy ways so that you can manage symptoms when they arise. 

Trauma can cause unique barriers to an individual's ability to receive support. Financial challenges, distance, and living conditions may cause someone not to seek support. If you are experiencing these barriers, online therapy through a platform like BetterHelp may be advantageous. 

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 demonstrated clinically significant improvements in their symptoms, and 77% exhibited these improvements at a follow-up assessment. 

An additional benefit of this study is that online interventions took less time to achieve desired outcomes than in-person treatment modes. Using an online therapy platform, you may avoid sitting in traffic or taking 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 a reliable internet connection. Many platforms can also match you with a therapist within 48 hours. 

Takeaway

Developmental trauma disorder is different than PTSD. However, it may be a label people can use to understand their childhood trauma. If you believe you may be experiencing this proposed condition, PTSD, or C-PTSD, consider contacting a licensed therapist for support.

Learn to heal from the impacts of trauma

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