When we hear the word “trauma,” we typically think of events that have been physically dangerous, very scary, and readily identifiable as something that would cause trauma. These can include rape, assault, combat, car accidents, and similar events.
But there’s another type of trauma that is less well known. Its effects are just as harmful, and probably even more so—developmental trauma.
Developmental trauma happens during childhood. It can occur in obvious ways, such as physical, sexual, or emotional abuse. But it can also occur through emotional neglect, medical issues that cause long separations between kids and their caregivers and other ways which aren’t always as obvious.
Children need a lot of nurturing, love, and physical care when they’re young. When parents/caregivers don’t or can’t meet these needs, a child’s development, specifically, the development of their nervous system, suffers. And this ripples out to cognitive, emotional, and social development interruptions.
It’s very easy to miss the signs and symptoms of developmental trauma because they are wide and varied in their expression. As adults, those who experienced early trauma may experience difficulty with controlling their emotions; have life-long struggles with anxiety or depression; have poor or superficial social supports; struggle with auto-immune disorders or chronic pain; and find it difficult to feel joy or ease. They can feel a deep sense of shame and an aimlessness about their lives.
Often, these types of symptoms are mistakenly attributed to other sources. That’s why it’s so important to review what happened during early childhood because it impacts everything that comes later.
So, how would you know if you have developmental trauma?
Identifying Developmental Trauma by Analyzing Your Experiences
Therapists look at specific occurrences, called “adverse childhood experiences” (ACEs), as contributing factors when evaluating someone for developmental trauma. These ACEs cover things that other people did to you, as well as how you felt.
Consider the following information and ask yourself if these are some of your very own experiences.
- Being regularly hurt physically—including shoving, hitting, slapping, or throwing things at you—by your parents or other adults.
- Receiving bodily injuries, bruises, scrapes, etc., as a result of physical aggression from parents/adults.
- Physical neglect, which may have involved unwashed clothing, hunger, unsanitary living conditions, and lack of feeling protected.
- Sexual molestation by an adult or older child. This includes inappropriate physical touch from them, requesting it from you, and/or any kind of sexual penetration (oral, anal, and vaginal).
- Being frequently belittled, called names, and made fun of by your parents or other adults in the household.
- Parents (or other adults in the home) who physically intimidated you to the point that you were worried about being hurt.
- Growing up feeling that you were worthless, unimportant, and unloved. Along with this, you may have felt like your family unit wasn’t really “there” for each other in a healthy way.
- Living with a father or another adult who abused your mother or stepmother. You saw her shoved, hit, beaten, threatened with a weapon, or harmed in any other way.
- Parents who abused alcohol and drugs to the point that they neglected you. Likewise, they would have been unable to secure appropriate medical care for you in the event of an emergency.
- Parents who separated or divorced when you were young.
- Living with anyone in the household who was an alcoholic or used illicit drugs.
- Seeing anyone in your childhood household struggling with mental illness or who attempted/committed suicide.
- A parent’s incarceration.
It’s easy to see how events like these can leave a lasting developmental mark on a child’s emotional and cognitive resiliency.
Growing up with fear, abuse, instability, neglect of emotional and physical needs, and substance abuse traumatizes and harms children. Likewise, parents who are too preoccupied with their own struggles don’t provide children with what they need to develop in a healthy way.
If you experienced any of the above events during your childhood, it’s important to consider reaching out to a therapist. The more of them you’ve experienced, the more serious the trauma is and the more important it is to find help.
However, there is hope. Although your parents may not have given you what you needed or protected you, it is possible to find healing. I have worked with many people suffering from developmental trauma. Over the years, I have discovered therapeutic approaches that can make a world of difference.
I’d love to help you find a way forward to emotional health.