Developmental Trauma

Developmental trauma is a phrase that many adopters become familiar with.  Trauma, early loss and attachment disruption can all cause developmental trauma. The experience or ongoing experiences impact on the development of the brain; how it responds to day to day life; new experiences and the people in their life. A child may have experienced ongoing physical and/or emotional abuse or neglect, the death or severe illness of a parent or sibling, being placed into the care system and adoption. Developmental trauma is often misunderstood. The child may be labelled as a naughty child. Developmental trauma also shares many characteristics as autism and ADHD. Obviously children with developmental trauma can also have autism and ADHD, they are not mutually exclusive, but it can bring complications into diagnosis especially one based solely on behavioural presentation. 

As adults we can often struggle to access our memories before the age of 4 years old. Experiences we have before we’re verbal are especially tricky to access because we link words, smells and experiences together to form long term memories. If we recall an event that has happened in our life we would be able to describe it to someone else using language but if we’ve experienced something before we’ve developed language it may well be stored as a physical reaction in our olfactory and sensory systems. The body remembers even if the mind doesn’t. We might then react negatively to the smell or sound in future years but not know why. If our birth mother experienced a lot of stress and anxiety whilst we were in the womb it can impact on our brain development leading us to be born with an overactive tendency towards anxiety and a fight/flight/freeze response that isn’t in proportion to the experience we’re having. If we are neglected by our caregivers in childhood, for a variety of reasons, and our emotional needs are not met then this impacts on how our brain develops and the chemical balance it has. Neglect can fall into extremes and may not always be what we might consider to be abuse. Whilst for some children the experience is very much what we might recognise as an obvious situation of neglect and abuse, children can also be severely impacted by their caregiver being severely depressed; with post-natal depression; being hospitalised or very unwell for a long period; the death of that parent or if their parent is mentally preoccupied, such as in situations of domestic abuse or another trauma when the parent may be emotionally shutting down as part of their own emotional survival; there might be a sick sibling who requires a lot of parental attention and the other siblings’ needs aren’t being fully met. Also when the parent has experienced early trauma themselves this can impact on their own emotional availability as a parent. In short it is something that can happen to many families, not just the situations we might immediately think of. 

Research shows that it isn’t just an event that causes developmental trauma but rather everything else that is also going on around the child at the same time. 

Children with developmental trauma can have very complex and confusing behaviours and reactions and this can lead to families who are experiencing high levels of distress, which further compounds the issues at the root cause of the child’s experience. Research by Professor Bessel Van der Volk has shown that early trauma is like an assault on a child’s development with the child developing unhealthy coping strategies and not developing healthy daily living skills and responses to stresses, solving problems, and managing their impulses and learning new information. Their responses can become stuck in fight/flight/freeze and collapse. 

People used to think that simply moving the child into a different situation, such as with adoption, would negate all the previous experiences. The child would feel safe and be well cared for and all the damage would magically be undone. Even in our current times, with more understanding, I have heard many people ask how the early experiences of my children could still affect them when they aren’t even able to remember those experiences. Some people will totally dismiss this idea, sadly often people we might experience in a professional capacity such as education or even in the medical world. A child with developmental trauma, once the brain has become stuck in these responses, will need more than just a different environment or a more settled period of life in order the recover. They need a deep level of understanding and specific support and parental responses to help heal the brain. It is not an overnight process. Sadly by the time most children and their families get that support they are generally in crisis and there is even more to unpick. 

From personal experience I will say that I was unprepared to parent children with developmental trauma. I have a professional psychological background and knew about attachment disorder and developmental stages. I have learned about FASD and ADHD and Autism. Pip has had School Based Anxiety since the day he started in Year R, except we didn’t know that was what it was called at that point. I knew deep in my bones that the traditional school process of pulling the child away from the parent and taking them into school on the premis that “they’ll be ok once you’re gone” was not the right approach for him. I’ve not gained  many supporters within education by taking that stance but it was the right approach. Sadly family bereavements; going through a divorce; depression, and everything that led to that within our family; and a worldwide pandemic just after that has further compounded both their early developmental trauma. As adults we can’t protect our children from everything we experience as adults or the world around us. We also only know what we know at the time and respond accordingly. Sometimes it takes us a while to raise our heads and look around us at what is happening. We are only human. Information and knowledge is changing all the time and it’s hard as a parent to live with knowing that we’ve not always parented or responded in the way our children needed. We all do the best we can, with the emotional availability that we have, but for children who are already experiencing the impact of trauma they need very specific support from the start of that journey that adopters often aren’t given fully or supported through. Nowadays adopters are given more information about Therapeutic Parenting and PACE and even NVR but often we are left to our own devices until it goes wrong and then we often have to relearn how to parent in these ways. 

One of my favourite quotes (which I’ll probably paraphrase slightly wrong) is from Bryan Post who talks about parenting in terms of blueprints of a house. He talks about looking at our own experiences of being parented in comparison to parenting children who have suffered developmental trauma and says that we are trying to parent in a mansion with the blueprint of a trailer park. 

When I first heard him say that it made such sense to me. In that moment though I realised just how much I’m still processing the challenging experiences I had as a child and that, no matter how much work I have done on myself (and continue to do) I still have a lot of emotional work to do continually if I’m to do my best for my children. That’s not to say only people who’ve experienced perfect childhoods should be parenting children with challenging early experiences. Quite the contrary. I believe I bring a deep understanding of the lifelong effects of early adverse childhood experiences but I wish we’d been better prepared to parent children who also have these experiences and the feelings and responses it would stir up in me. I hope adopters going through the preparation system now are helped to understand to start with parenting models aimed at helping children with developmental trauma and that Social Workers are now understanding that even a newborn baby can experience developmental trauma and prepare adopters accordingly. Equally I would hope that Social Workers working within Child Protection Services are starting to better understand just how to help and support birth families who are experiencing trauma. Sadly until the services are funded better and the right parenting support in place I know the answer to this without even asking. 

For us, as a family, we are learning. I’d like to say we can see the light at the end of the tunnel but I can see only a chink at the current time. I’ve recently completed an 8 week course on developmental trauma which has been very helpful. I met some wonderful people who are also going through desperately difficult challenges. We shared the complexities of our lives and recognised the impact those complexities have on us and on our children. We did not complete the course armed with a magic wand, rather more a deeper awareness of just how important we are as parents and a frustration at the inadequacy of the services around us. We are still very much on our own although better equipped now to respond in more helpful ways and to advocate for our children with more knowledge. 

As a family we are still waiting for Pip’s full CAMHS assessments. We know he has dyslexia and developmental trauma but we are still waiting for assessments for ADHD and Autism. He and I will be starting DDP therapy (now I’ve completed my CAMHS course) funded via ASF. It’s interesting to note that a frustration of many adopters has been around the diagnosis of autism, especially where developmental trauma is an issue. The term developmental trauma has been found to be a more helpful diagnosis than Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) which is the other term we might hear to describe the same issues. Services like CAMHS have found RAD to be unhelpful as a diagnosis especially for services like education. 

Pip struggles to be in school. He can feel quite distressed and he finds the classroom noisy when he’s feeling anxious. He is extremely hyperactive and his mood unpredictable. He flies into fight/flight response very easily. Pip finds it hard to be away from me for any length of time and finds it extremely hard when I take him to school where he acutely feels the anxiety of leaving me. He has very rigid thinking and self soothes by making a lot of noises and squeaking sounds. He needs a lot of my attention to feel safe which is very indicative of developmental trauma. That can feel intense, particularly these days now I’m on my own and I get very little time to myself.  I have learned that he responds well to Dan Seigel’s ‘Name it to Tame It’ approach. This is an approach I’d definitely recommend learning for any parent. It’s a very observational and reflective way of approaching behaviour. Pip is able to reflect on how he’s responded, rarely in the moment, but once he’s calmed down. I have to be mindful though that he also has a high shame response so apologies can often be because he feels ashamed of his reaction rather than understanding why he’s reacted that way.

Katie is also still waiting for support from other services. I recently undertook her CAMHS assessment but we know that doesn’t mean support will be forthcoming anytime soon due to the long waiting lists. Katie is very much in freeze/collapse response although can jump into fight with very little provocation. She likes to be alone in her room, like many teens, for long periods of time. She has always responded in very aggressive and oppositional ways which I will admit I have found to be one of my greatest challenges and even more so as she gets older. She struggles to recognise me as a parent or accept that she is still a young person. She sees no real distinction between us. I try very hard to be fair and mindful of expectations and demands but I think these coming years may well be challenging for us both. We have funding for some interventions from an autism charity and are waiting for ASF to sort themselves out so we can start that. We desperately need support for her to help her u der stand herself on a deeper level. Now we have her EHCP we are waiting for a school placement which after 2 years of being home except for 1 hour of education a day will be an enormous transition. I have a school in mind but am waiting to see if SEN at County will fund the placement. Choosing a suitable school for someone with such complex diagnoses is a minefield because the perfect school does not exist. I am aiming for a school for her with an autism focus to help offer her the intensive one to one support she needs to feel safe in education and also to help her come out of herself.

Someone on my recent course noted that we have to manage the repair to the attachment before we can parent properly. This is true. It’s incredibly frustrating though because there is no timer set or date to pin your hopes on. It leaves you a bit nowhere in the meantime hoping for the best which, in the teenage years, is even more of a challenge as our authority and relationship ship are tested to the highest degree. I am finding that I now have intense anxiety where I never used to due to the intensity of the challenges my children have an my internal reactions to those challenges. We are parenting and helping to manage and make sense of experiences our children have had that we often don’t even know the details of. It’s a tall order. As parents we have to be aware of how we’re feeling and how we’re feeling about our children. We need to listen to the words we use to describe them and their challenges and check in with our own levels of anxiety and anger because compassion fatigue and blocked care are realistic outcomes for us. I will write more about this soon.

One thing we do need to bare in mind is all behaviour is communication. That’s easy to say. Trying to work out what is being communicated and why is the really tricky part. 

More helpful resources can be found at Beacon House: Beacon House Developmental Trauma

Here is a link for Dan Siegel’s Name it to Tame It technique: Dan Siegel “Name it to Tame It”

Info about PACE; PACE DDP Network Dan Hughes PACE

Please know you’re not alone if you and your family are experiencing these issues. There is little you might say about how you feel that I haven’t felt myself. Be kind to you. Your self care is important too. 


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