What is Developmental Trauma?

Young Child With Developmental Trauma Disorder At WindowDevelopmental trauma is a term which describes the origins and presentation of a significant number of our adult (and child) clients at the Oxford Development Centre. It results from trauma experienced in a child’s early development. Such trauma can arise from maltreatment, family violence, or a disruption in attachment to their primary caregiver(s). Complications during birth, or early medical interventions can also give rise to traumatic experiences. The traditional thinking around Post Traumatic Stress Disorder does not account for how trauma can affect a child’s development into adulthood, whereas Developmental Trauma treatment emphasises these factors.

“PTSD is a good definition for acute trauma in adults. (However when the trauma occurs in childhood) because children’s brains are still developing, trauma has a much more pervasive and long-range influence on their self-concept, on their sense of the world and on their ability to regulate themselves.”

Dr van der Kolk, Professor of Psychiatry at Boston University Medical School

Trauma in childhood can shape our behaviours, our attitudes and relationship with emotions, our posture and body-shape, and form deep-seated beliefs (core beliefs/schemas/character strategies depending on which approach we work with) which can continue to be re-triggered and influence our lives in a negative way deep into our adulthood. How we react to, or organise around these childhood wounds gives rise to these deep cognitive structures (with beliefs such as ‘I am unlovable’; ‘other people are not to be trusted’; ‘my emotions are unimportant’; or the ‘world is dangerous’), but also to our defences such as avoidance, overcompensation or resignation.

An example of a defence is the development of dissociation. Working with dissociation is a common and integral part of the treatment of those with Developmental Trauma. Dissociation is our body and mind’s way of anaesthetising against overwhelming emotions and experiences. It is an adaptive and natural way to cut off until safety and stability  can be re-established. In childhood (also in adulthood) trauma, dissociation provides some valuable protection. However, if the trauma is severe and/or chronic, dissociation can become a pervasive or default mechanism in the face of stress. This can result in a lack of awareness of or dissociation from sensations, emotions, and bodily states, and cause difficulties in relationships and can be a barrier to self awareness and mental well-being.

At The Oxford Development Centre, our approach to treating Developmental Trauma is first through careful and thorough assessment and formulation of the origins and effects of the trauma on current functioning. We build our clients’ resources so that exploration of these early wounds is tolerable. We look at those events or experiences which are either acts of commission but also to acts of omission or the ‘missing experiences’.  We explore a process of updating old and no-longer required beliefs/strategies, and we gently facilitate our clients to reach completion (a sense of control, mastery, acceptance or nurture) through mindful attunement and imaginal or physically enacted ‘acts of triumph and acceptance’.