Many of the issues we have in adulthood have a firm base in developmental trauma and how we develop as children has a huge bearing on how we see the world as adults.
Developmental Trauma Disorder is a controversial diagnosis at present given that it was rejected as a disorder by the latest version of the DSM. However, its inclusion is being championed by a Boston trauma expert, Bessel van der Volk who carried out a study of 1700 children, some of who showed different symptoms to PTSD or CPTSD, often used as a diagnosis for traumatised children. In fact, he found that only 25% percent of these children had clear symptoms of PTSD and the rest had issues that were far more complex. I quote van der Volk:
Instead, these children showed pervasive, complex, often extreme, and sometimes contradictory patterns of emotional and physiological dysregulation. Their moods and feelings could be all over the place—rage, aggressiveness, deep sadness, fear, withdrawal, detachment and flatness, and dissociation—and when upset, they could neither calm themselves down nor describe what they were feeling.
Bessel van der Volk
Developmental trauma can be described as the following:
Developmental trauma is also called Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE). These are chronic family traumas such as having a parent with mental illness or substance abuse, losing a parent due to divorce, abandonment or incarceration, witnessing domestic violence, not feeling loved or valued or that the family is not close, or not having enough food or clean clothing, as well as direct verbal, physical or sexual abuse and is sustained over a period of time.
Canadian Mental Health and Addiction Network
Developmental trauma disorder as a name, was coined by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk and describes the effects of long-term exposure to trauma, typically profound abuse and neglect by caregivers during the first three years of life. What we are saying here is that the trauma that children develop starts much earlier than first thought. As the theory says, it is pre-cognitive and this would mostly explain the lack of recall and ability to link it to adult issues. Early trauma negatively impacts the brain during critical periods of development and results in poor emotional and physical self-regulation, poor self-esteem and the inability to trust others, particularly primary caregivers. It could also be the basis for such issues such as codependency.
More specifically, children with DTD endure: ‘Complex disruptions of affect regulation; disturbed attachment patterns; rapid behavioural regressions and shifts in emotional states; loss of autonomous strivings; aggressive behaviour against self and others; failure to achieve developmental competencies; loss of bodily regulation in the areas of sleep, food, and self-care; altered schemas of the world; anticipatory behaviour and traumatic expectations; multiple somatic problems, gastrointestinal distress to headaches; apparent lack of awareness of danger and resulting self endangering behaviours; self-hatred and self-blame; and chronic feelings of ineffectiveness’.
(van der Kolk, 205, p. 406)
What we know for sure is that developmental trauma is formed around an unsafe, avoidant attachment to caregivers in the first years of life where resistant and aggressive behaviour is shown in proximity to the parents. Fear of the relationship to the caregivers is paramount and if unchecked, these characteristics are taken into adulthood where fear of relationships, lack of empathy for others, no understanding of personal boundaries and the inability to temper an angry response to threat are all profound symptoms.
There are many schools of thought as to why developmental trauma is becoming such an issue and much of it is to do with the way families work and regulate in modern society. Ongoing research is looking at genetic and environmental factors. It is quite clear that neglect and abuse will lead to a broken and disorganised attachment to parents but some interesting theories have also developed from this to include more modern societal factors. Among some of the interesting theories about our modern society are:
Shame based parenting: We expect our children to be “perfect” in the eyes of society placing huge pressure on children to do well. Often the message that “you could have done better” is felt by children.
Distracted/Disorganised parenting: In the age of social media, many parents are often distracted and not actually parenting. Many of them are also dissociated from the present moment leaving the child to run amok.
Modern life pressures: Many children will be in the hands of strangers in the first three years of life when a bond needs to be built. Many parents will feel the financial pressure of going back to work. Many families are also isolated from their family of origin, a traditional support network.
Traumatised parents: Many parents have been through trauma themselves as children and pass this on to their own offspring.