Developmental Trauma

Developmental trauma can be a tricky thing because so often it goes by unnoticed. We can all think of those horror stories on the news about kids being raised in basements or closets. That is definitely developmental trauma, right? We can all agree on that one. But what about a highly stressful pregnancy, and scary birthing experience, or adoption? The list goes on and on, but we typically don’t think of these events as traumatic.

Developmental trauma is generally defined as happening within the first 4 years of life because 90% of the brain is developed by the age of four. Anything that happens before they start talking is called implicit or preverbal trauma. So while they don’t have a picture of what happened. They don’t have a visual of mom being abused or being afraid of dying during their birth, their brain remembers. It isn’t always a negative event that is considered developmental trauma; it can be the lack of a need being met. Infants need exposure to sensory input like touch, language, and rocking (vestibular). The absence of these things is also going to affect brain development.

The brain develops sequentially. The first part of the brain to develop (brain-stem) is in charge of those regulatory functions in the body like heart rate, blood pressure, skin, and lungs. These are all functions that we don’t have to think about. Our brain takes care of it for us. This part of the brain is forming in utero and reaches maturity during infancy. Next is the diencephalon. This part of the brain is responsible for motor control and secondary sensory processing.  It’s forming in utero as well and reaches maturity in childhood.

What might it look like if there’s trauma during these stages of development? The child may struggle with sensory processing. They might be extremely avoidant of certain sensory input (touch or sounds), or they might crave certain input beyond what seems typical. I had one family talk about how their adopted child needed to be rocked in a dramatic way in order to be soothed. They may have an awkward gait when they start walking and seem uncoordinated or clumsy. Clumsiness can be related to dysfunction in the vestibular system (related to inner ear). They may seem overly reactive and struggle with eating, sleep, and self-soothing. You may also notice issues with respiration, heart rate, or skin.

The next region of the brain to develop is the limbic system. This part of the brain is key in memory, emotional regulation, attachment, affect regulation, and primary sensory integration. Limbic is at the critical stage of development when it is most impacted by developmental insult during early childhood and doesn’t reach maturity until puberty.

If this region of the brain is affected, you may see fits in your child. They may be highly emotionally reactive, have a difficult time calming down, and may become destructive when escalated. You may also see patterns with relationships. Are they overly clingy? Distressed when separated from caregivers, followed by a death grip when reunited? Are they seek affection or are avoidant? Do they give the cold shoulder after being separated from care givers? Are they hot and cold, vacillating between “I hate you” and “I love you”?

The last region of the brain to develop is the neocortex. This is the smart part of our brain responsible for reasoning, impulse control, problem solving, abstract thought, and secondary sensory integration. It’s also the part of the brain that can tell the lower half to calm down. It’s peak vulnerability is during childhood and doesn’t reach maturity until adulthood, around the age of 25.

The thing with brain development is that early experiences can still affect regions of the brain that develop later on. It’s because there isn’t a stable foundation for the next building blocks. This is why children adopted in to loving families still struggle. Because something very significant happened to them while the lower brain was forming. How can a child so dysregulated by poor sensory processing be calm enough to attach or learn how to self-soothe? Early experiences matter greatly.

So what do we do about it? We direct therapy toward the region of the brain first impacted by developmental trauma. If that’s sensory integration, we start there, or self-regulation, then that’s what we practice. Often counseling takes a “top-down” approach, meaning we talk to the cortex, but the cortex is last in line. We need to take a “bottom-up” approach, which is often non-verbal. It includes play, sensory intervention, and learning to feel safe. Once we make progress with the lower brain, that’s when talk-therapy can take hold. Families who are dealing with developmental trauma often leave counseling feeling frustrated that there isn’t much change happening. It’s incredibly frustrating to not understand the fits, and outburst, and what feels like chaos. It may seem confusing now, but it can make sense because your child is having a very normal response to a not-so-normal start at life.

If you’re interested in having your child assessed for developmental trauma, check out our assessment page for the Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics (NMT) metrics.

If you think you or your child has been impacted by early trauma, contact us for a free consultation today. Find out what you can do.