10 Minutes

Edited & clinically reviewed by THE BALANCE Team
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Childhood is not perfect for anyone, yet some kids have it much worse than others. Such kids usually grow up in high-threat zones where they repeatedly hear, see, and feel things that terrify them. They are small and confused and often have no adult who can guide, comfort, or protect them. Many of these kids grow up to find themselves around emotionally reactive, mentally unstable or unpredictable people. Some of them are forced to live among adults checked out on drugs, while others face the humiliation and terror of bullying. Sooner or later, these children adjust to living on their own in a world that seems big and bad.

As children, we constantly engage in the process of attempting to understand the world as well as those who live in it. Unknown to us, many of us have internalised our traumatic experiences as kids that now decide who we are and how we cope whenever a stressful situation arises.

Medically known as developmental trauma disorder, this phenomenon is silently affecting millions of people across the world. While some get help early in life, others remain undiagnosed until adulthood. Regardless of when you get a diagnosis, it is imperative to seek help right away, as untreated developmental trauma can cause significant hindrances in daily activities of life.

Trauma is an umbrella term that describes one or more deeply distressing events that may leave lasting impacts on the nervous system and how someone sees the world. For most people, the primary emotional response to trauma is fear for their life and the safety of themselves or others. But what is developmental trauma in particular?

During the initial years of life, infants and toddlers require safe, accessible, predictable, and loving caregivers. In this safe and secure environment supervised by an affectionate caregiver, their brain can develop in a normal and healthy sequence of growth. The brain in children develops from the bottom upwards. The lower parts, responsible for regulating functions related to stress and survival, develop first. Some of these parts also control executive positions, for example, exercising moral judgment or making sense of what a child is experiencing.

The development of the upper parts begins only when the lower parts are well-formed. The human brain develops like a ladder in simpler worlds, starting from the bottom and gradually moving upward. If a child experiences abuse or neglect during this crucial time, it repeatedly activates a stress response in the brain. This repeated exposure to bouts of stress can disturb the brain’s sequential development. As a result, the ladder continues to develop; however, its foundational steps are either missing or altered in a way that negatively affects their neural health.

Developmental trauma, also known as reactive attachment disorder, may appear in multiple ways. Some of its common manifestations include sensory processing disorder, personality disorders, PTSD, speech delay, learning disabilities, oppositional defiant disorder, and more.

Many parents and caregivers falsely believe that children are too young to remember the traumatic events they experienced in their early life. At the same time, many professionals also do not pay attention to the early adversities of a child’s life. It is a common belief that early problems do not relate to current issues, especially if the current problem does not look like trauma.

Contrary to these popular beliefs, pioneering research indicates that unborn babies can suffer from trauma to their developing bodies and minds even when they are still in the womb. Similarly, a history of severe trauma in parents is capable of changing the unborn baby’s entire genetic makeup. Generally, suffering from trauma during pregnancy can make the unborn baby oversensitive to the stressors of daily life. And even though most individuals cannot explicitly remember the experiences that happen during the first four or five years of life, these experiences shape the later stages of their lives. The body remembers, even if the mind cannot.

Some of the common developmental trauma causes include:

  • situations that should not have happened, such as abuse, neglect, or separation of parents
  • things that should have happened but didn’t, such as physical and emotional neglect

The symptoms of developmental trauma often linger on with the trauma survivors into adulthood. In a fully-functioning adult, these symptoms may include the following:


Many people who suffer from developmental trauma during childhood are always hyperaware of their surroundings. They can never relax and feel like they can constantly be attacked, criticised or blamed. Some of them express difficulty trusting their partners even when they logically know they can.

Relationship Difficulties

Due to the high emotional reactivity in people with developmental trauma, their relationships are mainly on the rocks. Some may even avoid engaging in relationships and prefer remaining isolated and alone.

Mood Issues

Many developmental trauma survivors’ constant hopelessness and worthlessness may lead to mood issues, such as depression. With little motivation or joy in life, they struggle in life every day.

Physical Health Problems

Spending years of life with high-stress levels affect the trauma survivors’ physical bodies. They often struggle with sleep, unexplained pain, fatigue, and headaches. Their immune systems are weak, which makes them vulnerable to different infections. Additionally, the high anxiety levels also lead to multiple digestive issues.

Constant Worry

Because their brain is always on high alert, people with developmental trauma struggle with worry and anxiety. Most of them describe how they spend a large part of their day trying to escape the constant worries. Such people also fail to stop dwelling on imaginary things that could go wrong with them.

Living in a dangerous world eventually forces individuals to develop survival tactics. These tactics, however, come with many limitations on their ability to live a healthy and happy life. For all such people, it is crucial to seek therapy and address their developmental trauma and its lingering effects once and for all.

If you are confused about whether or not therapy is the right option for you, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you often avoid getting too close in relationships or struggle with commitments?
  • Do you feel like you rely too much on your partner to make vital life decisions?
  • Do you always rush into forming new friendships or relationships and quickly give up on your own interests?
  • Do you have issues maintaining boundaries?
  • Is it hard for you to say no to anything?
  • Do you suffer from low self-esteem or often devalue yourself?
  • Do you struggle to form an intimacy with your partner?
  • Do you routinely engage in concerning behaviours, like abusing drugs or alcohol, to avoid the intensity of your emotions?
  • Do you have the drive to succeed that often causes you to become a perfectionist or overwork?
  • Do you feel like you can experience a sense of control over your life by indulging in certain activities?
  • Do you face trouble concentrating on a task and can hardly finish a project you start?

If you answer yes to at least some of the questions mentioned above, get in touch with a mental health professional today for a detailed assessment of developmental trauma.

All adults battling the effects of developmental trauma require professional help and assistance to cope with the trauma. A trained mental health professional can help diagnose and treat all symptoms by using an individualised treatment plan specific to the type of developmental trauma.

A typical treatment plan designed for healing developmental trauma usually includes the following:

Trauma-focused therapies

These therapies allow individuals to process their unique symptoms of developmental trauma one after the other. A qualified therapist helps them learn more about their triggers and the healthy coping strategies to manage the trauma symptoms.

Cognitive behavioural therapy

Also known as CBT, this therapy helps individuals replace their negative thinking patterns with healthier ones.

Eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EDMR) therapy

Touted as the best therapy option for posttraumatic stress disorder, EMDR helps patients process and get over their traumatic memories by altering how their brains store them. With directed eye movements, these clients learn how to identify and get over their negative behaviours and emotions and fill their minds with healthier alternatives.

Family/couples therapy

Developmental trauma does not only affect the trauma survivor but may extend their loved ones. In such circumstances where its impacts are widespread, many therapists offer family or couples counselling sessions to help clients rekindle their relationships with their families.

If you or someone you love is manifesting the signs of developmental trauma, do not wait anymore. Get the much-needed help right away before the negative impacts of this childhood disorder cripples your life any further.



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Trauma & PTSD Insights

latest news & research on Trauma & PTSD

PTSD is a condition that can develop following exposure to a traumatic event. While not everyone who experiences trauma will develop PTSD

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What is Vicarious Trauma

According to the British Medical Association, vicarious trauma refers to a change process resulting from frequently engaging with trauma survivors. In simpler words, the term describes the negative changes that a person experiences who are empathetically involved with people who have experienced a traumatic event in the past.

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Developmental Trauma Disorder

The symptoms of developmental trauma often linger on with the trauma survivors into adulthood. In a fully-functioning adult, these symptoms may include the following:

read more
Signs Of Repressed Childhood Trauma In Adults

Childhood trauma, in particular, can have prolonged effects on physical health and may even lead to the development of several mental health disorders, including addictions.

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