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by Staff writer

Developmental Trauma – Why it’s important to have a trauma-informed perspective

If you have an interest in developmental psychology, or are involved in the care of children young people, it’s possible that you will have heard the term developmental trauma used recently. You might be aware of discussions around what it means to work from a trauma-informed perspective. In this article, we will be addressing the relevance of both terms in proffessional care involvement.


What is developmental trauma?


Developmental trauma can be a complicated term to fully explain without some important background context on how we understand the brains and nervous system to work, and how it develops in stages during childhood.

Almost all of the learning and growth that happens for us as humans after we are born involves developing and practicing our higher thinking skills. These include thinking, problem solving and considering what might happen in the future or how other people might feel.

These higher brain functions aren’t available when we’re emotionally overwhelmed and panicking. This is the brain’s way of protecting itself against extreme threats by resorting to emergency survival behaviours. These behaviours are often referred to as a fight or flight response, though sometimes a freeze or fawn response might be described as well. The behaviours themselves might vary, but they happen when we feel completely unsafe.

This panic mode is important for protecting against danger, but it can be very harmful if it lasts for longer than a brief and occasional emergency. Running on adrenaline for days or weeks at a time is damaging enough for the body of a fully grown adult, but it causes even greater harm to the developing brain. If a child is kept in this state of high alert for frequent and extended periods of time during infancy, then they’re also prevented from using their higher brain functions.

As a result, this means that they won’t be able to develop these skills with practice and experience in the same way that a safe, secure child will. Additionally, what opportunities they do have for brain development will typically be used for developing more complex survival skills first and foremost, before they’re able to learn and grow in any other areas. The brain is forced to develop differently, so that it can adapt to survive a traumatic infancy.

These differences in development will have a further impact in later life as well. This impact is known as developmental trauma.


What conditions are necessary to cause developmental trauma?


When we, as adults, think about what it might mean for a baby, infant or child to be growing in a perpetually unsafe environment, it’s easy to imagine extremes of violence, conflict or disaster that put them at risk of literal bodily harm. However, newborns can’t distinguish between dangers like these and any sort of  threat. Every time a baby becomes overwhelmed because they feel frightened or uncomfortable, they will experience it as a matter of life or death.

This is because they haven’t had enough previous experiences of caring support to learn yet, which would otherwise reassure them that they don’t need to be so upset. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. A baby who doesn’t get these consistent reassuring experiences of safety and comfort to adjust to, won’t gain this perspective either. Having to go without comfort and affection won’t be any easier for that baby to calm down from than consistent exposure to physical danger.

Therefore, a baby doesn’t need to spend the first months of its life in an active warzone to be kept on constant alert for threat. Prolonged periods of neglect will also deprive them of the safety they need to hit their earliest critical milestones of cognitive, emotional and relational development.


Closeup shot of two people holding hands in comfort

How is this relevant when providing trauma-informed care?


We talk about developmental trauma as a way to understand how being affected by traumatic deprivation in early life can result in more complicated issues with the development of cognitive, emotional and relational skills in later life. It’s a more comprehensive understanding of what is often recognised as behavioural difficulties or personality disorder, one that is informed by the circumstances of unmet needs which precede personality and behaviour.

This context is important to recognise if we intend to meet those needs in the present, and the sustained fulfilment of a person’s unmet needs is essential for resuming their development towards the milestones which have been delayed. This is what’s known as a trauma-informed perspective.

There are many professional roles in which it makes a critical difference to be working from a trauma-informed perspective, especially those that involve children in public care. This is because without that perspective, it’s possible to not recognise the real reasons why a person seems unable to engage in care and support. This can be frustrating and challenging at best, but can also result in further harm where these needs continue to go unmet, or even punished.


What else is there to know?


We have recently produced the first in an ongoing series of training courses on Udemy that explore the topics discussed in this article in much greater depth. This course has been written and delivered by Dr Margaret Bullock and contains 78 minutes of instructive video content with full captions and downloadable materials including handouts and audio only versions.

The curriculum covers the theory behind developmental trauma and its scientific evidence base in much greater detail, with a focus on why this is relevant for those who are recovering from developmental trauma and how to provide support for this in a trauma-informed way.

If you work in family law are a fostering or adoptive carer, or are otherwise involved in providing education or residential care for looked after children, then this is going to be particularly valuable training opportunity for you.



Please take a look at our flyer to see if this course is likely to be for you, or follow this link to view the course directly. For any other queries, you can contact us on 01282 685345 or at office@jsapsychotherapy.com

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