What is Developmental Trauma (C-PTSD)

For many years now, mental health professionals have focused primarily on the shock engendered by the trauma of extreme events such as those encountered in war, accidents or as a result of molestation. What has been largely overlooked is the second type of trauma no less insidious, pervasive or real. It is known as developmental trauma or Complex PTSD.  

Developmental trauma is the result of seeming invisible childhood experiences of being mistreated or abused that have been repeated many times. These cumulative experiences could involve verbal abuse, neglect or manipulation by a parent. Since the young child has no way to control the maltreatment and no hope of escape, these repeated experiences often traumatize the child.  

A child who is raised in the toxic environment of parental inconsistency, emotional abandonment, danger or unpredictability is left to suffer from “invisible trauma” that ensures both psychological and often neurological disruption.

While it is fairly easy to recognize physical or sexual abuse, the devastating impact of having deficient or harmful parents can easily elude our awareness. Because of the difficulty in identifying the emotional damage inflicted by alienation or emotional abandonment, children who suffer such wounds are often left bewildered and feeling confused by their pain.  

Despite the hidden nature of this epidemic, there is a growing body of research that has connected many psychological problems to these chronic emotional injuries endured in childhood. It is important for parents and mental health professionals to become familiar with the symptoms of developmental trauma if these children have any hope of leading normal lives.    

The Warning Signs of Developmental Trauma   

1. Deep-Seated Shame

The child may consistently express a sense of being defective in some way- being stupid, ugly, fat, disgusting or permanently flawed in some other way.  The verbal cues may be any one of the following: “There is something wrong with me”, “Nothing that I ever do is good enough”, “I am bad”. Indications of such toxic self-hatred may be the precursor to self-harm or even thoughts of suicide.

2. A Sense That There is No Ground and Powerlessness

Children suffering from developmental trauma feel that they are lacking a foundation in this world. Lacking this “ground” contributes to a feeling of powerlessness and even feeling inappropriate inside their own bodies. This often results in feeling vulnerable to becoming easily overwhelmed to feeling like “I’m breaking down”.

3. Becoming Hopeless and Despairing About Life

Children who have experienced chronic emotional trauma develop a sense of hopelessness that they will ever be understood. This despair can lead to losing the sense that life has any meaning. Faith in people and in continuing such a meaningless existence can fade leaving the child seemingly incurably despondent.  

4. Hyper-Vigilance and Inexplicable Fear

It is well known that those who suffer trauma live with an activated amygdala, which is experienced as a constant state of arousal. This reinforces the sense of persistent danger lurking. The child who suffers developmental trauma often cannot relax is often jumpy or irritable and may have trouble remaining asleep. Due to the trauma, the child lives with an incessant sense of being threatened, albeit inexplicable.

5. Emotional Regulation Difficulties

The child may be persistently sad or depressed, subject to unpredictable mood swings, inappropriate explosions of anger, or susceptible to triggers by external events exhibiting the inability to control emotional responses.

6. Feeling Isolated and Disconnected

Since developmental trauma often has its roots in attachment trauma- never forming the vital parental bond, the child grows up feeling unwelcome in the world. This results in the chronic difficulty in feeling connected to one’s self and others. This may result in a sense of deep loneliness and isolation. There may be simultaneously both an intense need for contact and fear of such contact.

Developmental Trauma is a silent killer. We need to recognize the symptoms in our children and get them the help that they need while there is still time to heal their deep wounds.