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What is Development Trauma?

Updated: Nov 20, 2019


Most of us think about trauma in terms of an assault, an automobile accident, neglect, a natural disaster, war, cancer, the loss of a loved one, etc. However, “Big T” traumas are not the only type of trauma an individual could wrestle with. The average individual will be faced with navigating what is termed developmental trauma during their lifetime. What is developmental trauma? Developmental trauma includes any scenario that overwhelms our central nervous systems (CNS) without possessing the coping skills to combat said scenario and regulate our CNS. Thus developmental trauma becomes apart of our everyday maladaptive behaviors. 


Let’s look at an example of developmental trauma. There is an entire group of individuals that were apart of the “Cry It Out” generation. We now know that babies CANNOT manipulate before the age of one. If a baby is crying before the age of one they have a need that must be met by a caregiver. Babies cannot fight or flee when in danger, therefore, they are sitting ducks. Let’s say a child wakes up in a dark room alone and is scared. They fell asleep in the warm cozy arms of their caregiver and now they are all alone so they begin to cry. Crying in this scenario signifies the child entering a state of hyper-arousal (hyper-arousal allows for flight or fight in a well-adapted child or adult).


Baby A: The caregiver hears the baby crying and rushes over to comfort the baby. The baby who cannot regulate feels the calming heartbeat of the caregiver and begins to co-regulate with the caregiver. Co-regulation aides the baby in its natural descent into social engagement (a state that allows us to correctly identify the emotions of others and engage with those emotions). The caregiver coos at the baby and the baby will begin to create neural pathways that promote nervous system regulation and correct identification for safety. 


Baby B: The caregiver hears the baby crying and decides to let them cry it out. The baby’s crying signifies it is in a state of hyper-arousal. The baby has no way to meet its own needs; it cannot fight or flee the discomfort or fear. The baby has no coping skills in place so the baby continues to become more and more aroused until the nervous system reaches a state of total overwhelm. The only option the baby’s nervous system has is to descend rapidly into a state of collapse. Much like a rollercoaster that has hit its highest peak (hyper-arousal) and only has the option to follow the tracks downward. Collapse is a state where the CNS needs the bare minimum to survive. The baby stops crying and appears peaceful in this state. However, in a state of collapse, the baby is beginning to build neural pathways that increase dissociation (a state of being out of touch with reality/not present).


Now let’s say Baby B is all grown up and seeking counseling. Baby B could be seeking counseling for a multitude of issues that connect back to their developmental trauma. Here is a list of why Baby B might be seeking counseling as an adult.


  • Baby B could be experiencing extreme anxiety because they have no neural pathways conditioned for being present or being able to identify safety. 

  • Baby B could be experiencing loose boundaries where they attach to anyone who gives them attention even if that person is toxic.

  • Baby B could be experiencing rigid boundaries where they continue to isolate because they have a core belief that everyone will leave them.

  • Baby B could be avoiding emotions because they cannot regulate their nervous system when feeling intense emotions.

  • Baby B could have intense mood swings due to the inability to regulate their nervous system when feeling intense emotions. 

  • Baby B could have a core belief that the world is not a safe or good place.

  • Baby B could be very spacey and cannot distinguish between safe and unsafe individuals.

  • Baby B could be experiencing depression due to the inability to identify safety or due to feeling stuck. Remember Baby B could not fend for themself and did not have an attuned caregiver.

  • Baby B could be diagnosed with a personality disorder due to having a non-secure attachment with their main caregiver.


There is no single path that developmental trauma follows. Situations that development trauma stems from and the effects it has on individuals will look different for each person. When development trauma is not healed it can become what is called complex trauma. Complex trauma occurs when individuals keep finding themselves in different situations that strengthen or condition their neural pathways that create maladaptive behaviors, beliefs, emotions, and sensations. 


Continue to read my blog to learn more about Trauma!



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