What is Developmental Trauma?
Eliza Wells, MS, AMFT
It used to be widely believed that anything that occurred prenatally, during infancy, or young childhood would not be recalled or integrated in any meaningful way for a person as they moved into adulthood.
It is true that explicit (or declarative) memories do not typically develop until the second or third year of life. This is the type of memory we typically refer to, that presents as consciously recalled information like facts, concepts, and previously lived experiences in a narrative, cohesive form. This is why most people don’t report having any “memories” until they were 3-4 years old.
But there is another type of memory, known as implicit, somatic, emotional, or body memory, which begins in utero. This “feeling” memory involves everything that is not conscious–it develops before we even have the brain development to categorize or make sense of our experiences, and before we have any sense of language to express them. These might feel like intuitions, instincts, or even imaginations–we oftentimes have difficulty really trusting these memories as “real” in the same sense, because they are often more fragmented, sensory, and lacking in context.
The earliest years of life are actually the most rapid and significant periods of growth for our brains–and so many implicit memories are being made, stored, and incorporated into how the brain develops.
Children are constantly developing neural pathways as needed and reinforcing the ones that appear useful, particularly related to connection and attachment to other people.
Infants and young children are entirely dependent on their caregivers for survival. Because they don’t have the ability to fend for themselves (“fight”) or flee from danger (“flee”), they are focussed entirely on developing a strong attachment to their caregiver to protect them. The brain categorizes this as non-negotiable and important above all else.
But what happens when the caregivers are abusive or neglectful?
The child still attaches to the caregiver, no matter what sacrifices have to be made to maintain that connection. Oftentimes these sacrifices involve rewiring the brain to protect the child’s image of the caregiver as one that is all-knowing and perfect, because that is what the nervous system of the child needs in order to feel safe.
Because children cannot yet flee from an abusive or neglectful caregiver or fight back, they will adopt a different survival strategy–one of “freeze” or “fawn”.
No matter how objectively abusive, neglectful, or invalidating a caregiver is, the child’s brain will “flip the script”–personalizing the abuse as something that is the fault of the child: “I must be the problem. If I were a better child, they wouldn’t have to treat me this way”. This allows the child to hold onto their internalized image of the caregiver as one who is good, but it results in an abandonment of their image of self as good–and they will make this trade, every time.
It also offers them an illusion of control where they otherwise have none: “If I can just be or do differently, then I will be loved”.
The brain of a small child is wired to personalize any failings of the caregiver in this way–and for healthy development to take place, it is important for caregivers to notice and correct this narrative in their children–so that they internalize that they are loved unconditionally.
But when abuse and neglect occur in childhood, these neural pathways are reinforced and follow that child into adulthood. This presents as complex trauma in adults, who will tend to take full responsibility for things that are out of their control, often defaulting to self blame, shame, and guilt when they encounter abusive others or difficulty in the world. And even when they have the option to fight or flee when they are presented with danger, they will often still freeze or fawn–seemingly forever “stuck” in the developmental response they developed as children.
Complex trauma can “freeze” parts of you at the age at which you experienced it, while other parts continue to develop healthily.
Someone might be entirely competent or even excel in a number of areas in their adult life, but revert to childlike behaviors under stress. Or they may reach a time in their adult life where, seemingly out of nowhere, they lose the ability to do things that they could do before. This can be terrifying and often leads to the person questioning their sanity, competence, and sense of self.
And this brings them back to that self abandonment shame narrative:
“What is wrong with me?”
“Why am I broken?”
“I’m not good enough”
“I am defective”
And this narrative comes coupled with implicit memories of the abuse or neglect experienced in childhood:
- Inexplicable fear, shame, guilt, sadness, hopelessness, anger, or helplessness
- Hypervigilance and heightened anxiety
- Difficulty with regulating emotions
- Isolation, disconnection, loneliness
- Difficulty feeling connected to self or others
- Dissociation, derealization, or depersonalization
- Relational problems (a coexisting desire and fear of connection)
- Negative beliefs of about the self, others, and the world
- Lack of trust for others
- Sense of impending doom
- Fatigue/body aches and pains, chronic pain
- GI issues, nausea
- Nightmares and sleep disturbances
- Panic attacks
These “emotional memories” can occur like sudden flashbacks, brought on by cues that are reminders in some way of the abuse or neglect that occured in childhood. But these cues or triggers could be so seemingly small or inconsequential that they aren’t consciously recognized–and they could occur so often that these feelings feel constant and consistent, as if they are real in the present moment:
- Sensory details (visuals, scents, textures, tastes)
- Dates, seasons, and times of day (anniversaries, weather, cycles)
- People, places, items
- Feelings (helplessness, hopelessness, sadness, disappointment, anger)
- Experiences (breakups, travel, loss)
- Relationships (even ones that are safe and healthy!)
Developmental trauma is a particular way that your brain developed to try and protect you as a child that has a lasting impact on your nervous system, the way you see the world, and the way you see yourself and others.
It’s a wiring of the brain that at the time was necessary for survival–but it stays with you even when you gain new ways to protect yourself or are no longer in proximity to the same threats you once were.
And because it’s not entirely conscious, it’s incredibly difficult to distinguish it as a perception, perspective, or lens through which you see and interact with everything. It can be passed down through generations, cultures, and other systems as intergenerational, historical, or environmental trauma.
When emotional memories hit, they can be extremely painful, all encompassing, and feel unbearable, leading to self-harm and distracting behaviors in an attempt to obliterate the emotional experience entirely:
- Addiction and alcohol abuse
- Eating disorders
- Self-harm and suicide attempts
- Unsafe and risky sexual behaviors
- Prioritizing the needs and desires of others over self
- Memory gaps
Experiencing a near constant state of activation can lead to a blanket avoidance of more and more life experiences in a desperate effort to pursue a sense of safety that may never have been experienced, or that may seriously limit their ability to live the life they would like to live.
This can also lead to a state of disconnect between the mind and the body, where someone is no longer in touch with their implicit memories at all. They might not be able to identify what a life they would like to live might even look like, or be able to feel any positive emotions like hope at all–because this is opening themselves up to a potential for pain. They may hardly be in touch with bodily sensations or feelings at all–or they might be hit with these all at once seemingly out of nowhere.
It can be overwhelmingly vulnerable to consider that they might have their own needs, wants, and values. They may have had to bury these and instead work towards what others around them needed in order to survive. Or they may attempt to disconnect from the need to have others in their life or emotionally close to them at all. In some cases, it might lead to the creation of an entirely different “self” that runs the show–to protect the inner child that’s still buried away inside them.
Developmental trauma is so elusive because it can show up in so many different ways and look like so many different things. The nature of the symptoms themselves often work to hide or disguise the actual source of the distress, even from the person themselves.
But working with developmental trauma isn’t all about recovering the context and objective narrative–those may or may not ever come to light. It’s about building a sense of safety and comfort with the self and others through genuine connection–something that might never have been experienced before.
Your body and mind may not have been a safe place for you to be in the past–but you deserve to reclaim them now in the present.