Developmental Trauma

Page Outline

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

The acronym PTSD has become a household word that most people understand. The classic example is that someone goes to war and they come back with nightmares, flashbacks, and other signs of emotional instability. Post-traumatic stress is generally characterized as something that comes from a single incident. In contrast, developmental trauma is about chronic occurrences in childhood that shape your personality as you develop. Here's a comparison of single-incident trauma versus chronic trauma:
Single Incident Trauma Chronic Trauma
Responsive to treatment Responds poorly to intervention
Fits PTSD diagnosis Does not fit PTSD dianosis
Extreme, relevant symptoms Personality-integrated symptoms
Frequent, relevant nightmares Inconsistent nightmares
Avoids trauma-related stimuli Perceives world as generally unsafe
Symptoms begin right after trauma Symptoms may take years to become obvious
Isolated, relevant triggers Generally oppositional or anxious behaviors

Infancy Trauma | Developmental Trauma in Infancy

If you were traumatized as an infant, part of you remains at the stage where it doesn't even want to meet its own needs. This part of you is just a baby, and needs mom to meet all of your needs. Your baby-self needs mom to be able to do this without the benefit of a shared spoken language.
Normal interactions for a baby include things like pointing, smiling, making "coo" noises and having adults respond with noises and gestures of their own. Trauma happens when there is a severe breach or a chronic breach of this normal interaction. For example, if the only care-giver you have is depressed and doesn't respond for months, this will create trauma due to chronic lack of response. For a two-minute sample of how rapidly an interaction can change by simply having an unresponsive mother, watch this clip that demonstrates the "still face" experiment.
To heal infant trauma, the adult needs someone to treat them as a baby again – not in a demeaning way, but by intuiting their needs and meeting them. When this is done for a long enough period of time, in conjunction with meeting other infant-needs, the baby-fragment moves on to being a toddler-fragment.
Another infant need is a constant care-giver who always cares how you feel. Having someone who is attuned to your emotions, who notices your posture and expressions, and who consistently cares about what they are observing from you will go a long way toward healing your infant trauma.

Toddler Trauma | Developmental Trauma as a Toddler

If you were traumatized as a toddler, then part of you remains at the toddler stage before autonomy is fully developed. One symptom of this is always asking, "What do you want to do?" without ever asking yourself what you want, or dismissing your own wants as unimportant. The toddler phase is all about developing healthy boundaries. If your boundaries were repeatedly violated as a child, then you learned that you could not be yourself and also have connection with someone at the same time – either they would abandon you or they would force you to behave the way they wanted you to. (The former leading to abandonment trauma and the latter leading to enmeshment trauma.) For a detailed look at what this condition looks like, I highly recommend watching Teal Swan's videos, I can have me, and I can have you too and Developing Healthy Boundaries.
Toddler-you needs to make decisions and have them honored. This requires having friends and/or an intimate partner assist your healing process. Your friends need to understand how important it is for you to develop your own autonomy. Your friends will need to prompt you to express your feelings and desires. Then your friends need to honor those needs and desires.

Trauma Creation

How is chronic, developmental trauma created?
    Ignoring the crying of a baby.
    Failing to interact with a baby or toddler.
    Invalidating a toddler when they say no.
    Habitually telling a child that you feel one thing when your body language shows the child that you feel something entirely different.
These are standard practices in our culture, which is why virtually everyone you meet will have developmental trauma.
We all have different aspects stuck at different development stages. I have an aspect frozen as a baby, another aspect frozen as a toddler, another as an adolescent, and other aspects that made it to adulthood. You can identify these aspects of yourself by thinking of times when you just wanted someone else to make everything better, or when you wanted someone to read your mind.

Selective Identification

When enough of us has matured to adulthood, we can make the choice to selectively identify with our adult aspects. Then these frozen aspects only come out when we're especially stressed and unable to maintain our selective identification with our adult selves.
The confusing part about this is that we display a fully-formed, healthy adult most of the time, but then we throw tantrums and everyone can't understand why. We blame it on "stress" but the stress is just the trigger, not the root cause.
This is the most common pattern I witness in myself, my family, my friends, and my clients: People wear very thick masks of adulthood, but every person has aspects of self that stagnated a long time ago that come out when triggered.
You can identify how identified people are with their adult personas by asking people how well behaved they were as a child, and asking them to tell you stories about their misbehavior as a child. Notice how someone tells their story: Are they explaining how their parents felt, how their teacher felt, how their "victims" felt, or how they themselves felt as a child? People who are highly identified with their adult self will not identify with their child self, but rather, they will tell the story from the point-of-view of an adult that was impacted.
There are some people who are fully stagnated and not identified with an adult perspective. These people end up in special care because they're entirely dysfunctional even when it comes to basic care for themselves. These are people who can't hold a job, and who behave "irrationally" on a daily basis. Such individuals can't function in society the same way a three-year-old could not function as an adult in society.
Even if you have little difficulty functioning in society, the chances are very high that you still have fragments of yourself that are frozen in their child-like state. Even those of you who claim you had "great upbringing" – that's your selective identification talking. This doesn't mean you don't have a lot to offer – you do. But everyone needs care, and if they are acting like they don't. For every person you meet, including your doctor and your psychologist, you're encountering the part of them that has selectively identified with their functional, adult self. Hidden inside is (usually) a screaming inner child.

The Role of Fragmentation in Relationships

Having your perspective split into many fragments affects all aspects of your life, but none more than your relationships with other people. When you're in an intimate relationship with someone, you start to see all their different "sides" – their fragments. You see their tantrums, and their triggers. You begin to learn what things can "set them off" and make them behave like an entirely different person. Being aware of how developmental trauma works can greatly enhance your ability to communicate and create repair in your relationships effectively.
Here's an example from my own life: Often, I find myself distressed when I'm talking with one of my husbands. I will find that nothing they say comforts me, even if they're intellectually offering me exactly what I want to hear. That's because the fragment of me that is experiencing the distress comes from infancy trauma. Infancy trauma can not be address with cognitive gestures or abstract concepts. You can't tell a baby, "Don't worry, it'll be better tomorrow," in a flat tone of voice and expect the baby to be comforted. A baby understand touch, tone and facial expressions. It doesn't understand the subtly of resentment versus anger, but it does understand the vast difference between a loving touch and a defensive distance.
My mother was up on psychology of the eighties, and so when I was born she figured she'd do the right thing and use the "cry it out" technique. I don't remember this experience with words or visuals, but watching other babies cries brings up a memory of a feeling that causes me to shake and begin to cry myself if I let it. Under hypnosis I've been able to express in words some of what I felt as a baby, and I often felt lonely, misunderstood, and confused by the responses I was getting. I was also once severely sick and didn't understand why nobody was making it better; I was mistakenly under the impression that nobody cared enough to make it better.
Now, understanding developmental trauma, when I'm upset and nothing being said to me is making it better, I now know why: it isn't my adult self that is upset. It's my infant fragment, a fragment of myself that requires comfort that can felt through touch, see through body language, and heard through tone of voice. Using this knowledge, I can express my need to my husband and get the comfort I need to calm down and return to a sense of normalcy and connection.

Multiplicity Recognition Matters

We need to see both sides in every person we meet – the side that is capable, powerful and offers valuable lessons and the side that is hurt, broken, wounded and in desperate need of help.
If we fail to see this, we'll go around labeling some people as "healthy humans who don't need help" and some people as "broken people with nothing to offer and a desperate need for care." When we label people like this, we do a disservice to both the people we label as "functional" and the people we label as "dysfunctional" and to ourselves.
It is a disservice to a functional person to disregard their inner child crying out for help. Just because they're doing it to themselves doesn't make it kind for you to do it too. Highly resourced people are often very rewarding to help, and can become highly loyal friends if you can access and help their inner wounded aspects.
It is a disservice to a so-called dysfunctional person to disregard their gifts and offerings. They have experiences that are valuable to share, and often they have a surprising level of expertise in the areas that interest them most. Invalidating the parts of them that are knowledgeable or capable only furthers their wounding. Those who are the most dysfunctional are often highly insightful because they are not as cut-off from their emotional wounds. These people often have the capacity to heal more deeply, more quickly because they are already in touch with their hurt inner-fragments.
It is a disservice to yourself to label people one or the other because you miss out on opportunities to boost your own sense of value by helping the so-called functional people, as well as opportunities to learn from the so-called dysfunctional people.
Worst of all is to label yourself as a whole "completely functional" or "completely dysfunctional." Recognizing the truth of your many internal fragments allows you to use the more resources aspects of yourself to help the hurting aspects of yourself. For example, if you're feeling a strong emotional reaction to a video that you're watching and you begin to cry, you can use the more adult aspect of yourself to go to someone who cares for you (or call them on the phone) in order to give external support to the part of you that is needing support.
In other words: You can leverage your adult aspects to meet the needs of your traumatized aspects. This is different from identifying with your adult self and rejecting your traumatized aspects of self, which is what most people do in order to conform to society's expectations and demands. When you opt to identify only with your "rational" self, you show a lack of compassion toward any hurting part of self. When you do this, you think nothing of treating other people the same way when they are hurting, which is how trauma is perpetuated through the generations. The adult who chronically disowns their own pain also chronically dismisses their child's pain, traumatizing the child.

Transactional Relationships

Developmental trauma causes transactional relationships to form. Each individual comes to the relationship having failed to have all their needs met in childhood, and still feeling the need for someone else to meet these needs. One person may come into the relationship feeling unable to take care of themselves by holding onto a job or managing finances and another might enter that relationship feeling inadequate. They make a contract that is often subconscious, although some may make it openly. In my case, I make my transactions in my relationships openly and draw out terms from my husbands. This makes them both uncomfortable, because we all wish we could ascend from these patterns, but we also know we'd be lying to ourselves if we claimed our love was unconditional. (See: Unconditional love.) That said, our love is as conscious as we can make it – something to be discussed and explored explicitly, authentically.
Back to our hypothetical (and quite common) couple: the one who can't provide financially for themselves pairs with the one who can't provide emotionally for themselves and they support one another. If this dynamic is completely subconscious, it can become highly destructive. They can both become highly dependent rather than interdependent. Because of this, neither person feels very secure. They can sense the conditionality of the relationship, and yet because it isn't explicit, they can't rely on what the conditions are. In fact, the very hiding of the conditions of the relationship adds to the insecurity, because both can tell that the other isn't being completely honest with them. To be fair, this dishonesty is usually first and foremost with oneself.
If you're experiencing subconsciously conditional relationships, it's because you learned it from the adults who were in your life when you were growing up. It's a given that your primary care-giver(s) also had subconsciously conditional relationships. Lacking any pristine example of a healthy relationship to learn from, you grew up soaking up the patterns, coping techniques and concepts from the adults you had in your life growing up. What you've seen in movies hasn't helped much either, as most romances are actually displaying the same patterns in glorified ways. Few romance movies even touch on the "hard stuff" that we all have to confront if we want a truly connecting, spectacular relationship. (The Notebook touched more on the truth of relationships than most romance movies.)
Most self-help today looks at ending co-dependency through self-sufficiency. Unfortunately, this involves repressing the aspects of you that deeply need human connection in favor of having an even more painful life. While some few people seem to master self-sufficiency from an exterior perspective, these people are almost always those with enmeshment trauma to begin with (a tendency to be afraid of getting close to other people), and they are terribly emotionally imbalanced, often favoring anger or apathy over lasting gratification. Don't get me wrong, these people are often quite monetarily successful and can often found amazing companies, or write insightful books. But for most people, this striving to meet all of your own needs – on your own – actually adds more trauma to your existing trauma.
Think about it: Your existing trauma was that your care-givers weren't meeting your needs for feeling connected, loved, seen, felt, heard, and significant – and now, here you are telling yourself that nobody will ever meet your needs, so you'd better grow up and meet them yourself. Imagine telling a infant to "grow up and hug itself" instead of crying for its mother. It's a sad image, but highly analogous of what's happening with these self-help teachings.

When Relationships Begin

At birth you can't yet conceptualize of yourself as separate from your mother. You can't yet have a relationship with your mother, because you can't yet think of yourself as separate from her. It isn't until you start to develop an idea of your "self" as being separate, individual and unique that you begin to develop relationships.
A healthy transition would look like this: You begin to develop your sense of self, and Mom is still there smiling, but not hindering your newfound desire to crawl away from her. You begin to develop preferences and you express "yes" to foods you like, and "no" to foods you dislike, and Dad is there nodding his head and taking away the plate you rejected without reprimand. You learn your boundaries, including when it feels like a boundary violation to be left alone, and you express these boundaries. You tell your sibling or friend when it doesn't feel okay for them to leave you alone, and they listen and care. At times, you express your needs to everyone and nobody can meet them at the moment, but because you have parents, siblings, neighbors, and friends who care about you, usually someone is always there for you so you aren't traumatized by the rare occasions when nobody can. You accept yourself, and you develop the ability to meet your own needs as you mature, and because you feel confident, and capable, you find it easy to help others.
Think about what you've witnessed actually happening. We have a name for it: The Terrible Twos. This time period is when children are trying so very hard to express their boundaries, but the adults aren't respecting the wishes of the child. So they rebel and rebel and rebel, until eventually, the stakes are too high and they surrender to the conditional reality of their relationship with adults. In other words, the child either submits to the wishes of the adults and tries to convince themselves that they actually wanted to be "Momma's perfect boy," and/or they begin to learn to subvert the adults in their lives by pretending to conform while simultaneously maneuvering to get their needs met. If the child can't manage to do either of these, they end up becoming the "problem child" or "family scapegoat" who is always in trouble.
While it varies somewhat for each individual, humans are doing the critical work of developing their sense of self from three months old to three years old. We go through another stage of individuation during puberty, and a third stage when we leave home.

Healing Infancy Trauma | The Root of Codependency

Developmental trauma forms when any area of oneself is unable to progress or grow. Parents and school systems that use guilt to manipulate children will cause deformed self-concepts in these children. Instead of forming healthy self-concepts about their weaknesses and strengths, they instead get stuck with the painful belief that they are completely defective. This belief is too painful to confront, and so it is hidden away, kept in "cold storage" so to speak, unable to progress or grow. Often this guilt is aimed at children in response to their inability to meet their own needs, which is coming from the trauma already inflicted when they were babies.
It is having our physical and emotional needs met completely as babies that allows us to become curious about meeting our own needs as we grow. If this doesn't happen, then part of us remain stuck at that phase, waiting for someone else to meet our needs for us. This can show up as feelings and thoughts like, "I just wish someone could take care of me," or "I wish my life was like a spa – being touched, waited on and cared for all the time," or "I wish my partner would pay attention, understand me better, pick up on my cues and not require me to spell everything out." These thoughts and feelings are natural responses to feeling neglected as a baby. Society tends to label this behavior as "codependency" and encourage you to become independent as the cure. However, this approach adds further trauma to the existing trauma.
Developing an adult part of yourself who looks out for this neglected baby aspect is critical in finding healing. If you can afford it, seriously consider whether going to a spa on a regular basis would give you the sense of being pampered that you need. Or, join or start a ladies' group for gathering to give each other massages, facials, pedicures, manicures, hairdos, and cleansing vegetable juices. Another solution may be a weekly session with a therapist or co-counselor. While the specific issues discussed may or may not be resolved, the consistent connection with someone who listens and compassionately considers you will do some good toward healing the infant within.
Ask yourself what feels like an "outgoing boundary violation" in your relationships and express your needs to the people closest to you. For example, I've found that going to sleep or waking up alone more than once or twice a week causes a somatic distress response in my body; I begin to feel more anxious, clingy, and emotionally fragile as this happens more often. So I've expressed a boundary: I need a partner to be there with me almost every night and every morning to give my internal infant a sense of security.
Expressing your boundaries is critical. If you can't be honest with yourself and others about them, you will subconsciously aim to get your needs met anyway, and the manipulative, subconscious methods are often much more messy. If you feel miserable going to bed alone at night, but it is "too much to ask" your partner to go to bed at the same time as you, then you might take to self-destructive behavior at night, such as staying up telling yourself negative stories about your relationship until your partner joins you. Or, in more extreme cases, taking a lot of medications or cutting yourself until your partner joins you. These behaviors are an aspect of you screaming out for help. Wouldn't it be healthier to have a discussion about your past traumas and the resulting needs you have today? If it is too hard to have this kind of discussion with the people closest to you in your life, it may be time to find new people to connect with. Or, it may be time to examine your communication style and see how it might be sabotaging the intentions of your conversations.
Remember that babies have no capacity or desire to meet their own needs. Don't ask the infant part of yourself to "speak up" about its needs. It is up to you, the part of you reading this – the more cognitively developed aspect of yourself – to listen for cues from all aspects of yourself. Feeling shame, embarrassment, despair, and anxiety are all signs that some aspect of you is not getting its needs met. Use your intellect to interview yourself and find answers to what is going on inside. Then use your compassion and communication skills to seek loving ways of helping yourself, which includes asking others to help you.
Infancy trauma can be diagnosed as "learned helplessness." Strategies for combating this can be helpful or harmful, depending on which fragment of you is engaging in the therapy. Empowering your adult/cognitive aspects to help the helpless aspects of you will be helpful. Shaming the "helpless" aspect of yourself in any way with further traumatize this aspect of you, and so will repressing the aspect of you that feels helpless.

Healing Toddler Trauma | The Root of Weak Boundaries

Ever notice that so many adults struggle from an inability to say "no" when they don't want to do something? You're afraid you might hurt someone's feelings, or you're afraid that someone might stop liking you or being your friend. Worst case scenario, you're afraid saying "no" too often to your spouse will lead to divorce, splitting up your child's family and home. It's classic for women to violate their own boundaries by agreeing to have sex when they really don't want it. Why do we do this? Part of the story is because it is also classic for girls to grow up with distant fathers. Young women quickly learn that they can barter away their sexual boundaries to get glimpses of connection with men. In some cases, we can create a long-term barter where a man will connect with us as often as we want, so long as we give them sex as often as they want. This is what I personally learned how to arrange – and I was hungry enough for connection that I learned to do this by fourteen, which is when my first long-term relationship occurred.
There is more to this story, however. It isn't just that girls grow up with fathers they can't connect to. Another large part of the story happens when you're a toddler. This is the stage of life where you're learning your boundaries and asserting them. If your attempts at asserting your boundaries is met with strong disapproval, you will learn that you can't both have your boundaries and have love at the same time.
Here's an example: Stacy is two and learning how to say the word "no." She's good at it, unlike her adult counterparts. To Stacy, saying "no" allows her to assert her boundaries. She is expressing her own individual will which is separate from her mother's will. This development of boundaries is healthy, but Stacy's mother finds her daughter's outbursts to be invalidating and threatening.
Stacy's mother chooses a beautiful dress for Stacy to wear, but Stacy yells "no" and runs around naked instead. Stacy's mother, intent of maintaining discipline, grabs Stacy and tells her that she is being disobedient, disrespectful, and unladylike. Stacy yells "no" again, but Stacy's mother tells her she can either calm down and put the dress on, or she can sit in the corner for the next twenty minutes, facing the wall. Stacy, intent on maintaining her boundary, stalks to the corner and stands there, angrily crying.
The twenty minutes feel very long to Stacy. She gets tired, and she stops crying. Her mother comes over to her and hugs her and tells her that she loves her very much. She says, "Now that you've cried it out and calmed down, let's put the dress on and get breakfast." Stacy is now too tired and miserable to argue anymore. She cries a little more, but acquiesces to the dress. Stacy's mother feels as if the situation is resolved, but in truth, Stacy is not "all better." On the contrary, Stacy has just had a dose of boundary trauma: she has learned that she can not assert her boundaries without being punished and violated. She has learned that what she wears is for the purpose of pleasing someone else, not herself. Is it any wonder so many young women obsess about wearing the "right" thing? Is it any wonder that so many people conclude that they have to choose between autonomy and connection?
Stacy continues to attempt to assert her boundaries, but every time she is met with the same result. Her mother shames her and puts her in time-outs. At school she is made to write lines or sit out. She learns to suppress her need for autonomy in favor of her need for closeness. Stacy becomes clingy and experiences intense separation anxiety. Stacy doesn't feel like she can take care of herself, so gets into relationships where she can get the closeness and care she requires, so long as she continues to sacrifice her boundaries and be the "good girl" that her boyfriend desires. Stacy makes him feel appreciated and needed, and she bends to his will, making him feel powerful and important. In return, Stacy doesn't have to be alone or uncertain. Stacy finds out what her boyfriend likes her to wear and makes sure to only wear dresses that he likes.
Stacy's story is one example of how this can go. There are infinite varieties of how traumas can interact, however. If you're a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP), like I am, then you are prone to sensory overloads which often leads to others shaming you for being weak, shy, or unstable.

A Highly Sensitive Person with Developmental Trauma

Being a Highly Sensitive Person is a genetic trait that affects about one in five people. The trait affects how your brain works, causing you to be able to assess more information and make more connections from your sensory stimuli. Often the "terrible twos" are more painful for highly sensitive individuals. Adults in your life are likely to label you as "too weak" and try to get you to "toughen up." When you burn out more quickly than other children, it is also taken as further evidence of your weakness. This leads many Highly Sensitive People to become hyper independent so that they can keep other people and their loud, shaming ways away from them. Many other Highly Sensitive People swing the other direction and become very needy, dependent on someone who is less sensitive who can speak for them, or cover for them when they need to hide and recuperate.
Many studies don't take into account whether individuals have the HSP gene. Also, being "overly sensitive to stimuli" is listed as a common symptom of infancy trauma. Because of this, I would like to propose that it is easier to cause infancy trauma in highly sensitive babies. Because a highly sensitive baby will expound more on their incoming stimuli, they will be more sensitive to disorders in their parents. If Mom is always making facial expressions that don't match her tone, this may distress a highly sensitive baby more than other babies.
It is my pleasure to bring you this ad-free, completely authentic and original website. This entire site is a one-woman operation. I, Raederle, do the HTML coding, the writing, the photography, the artwork and more. Then you come along, view my work and make it all worth while.
Except that sometimes your viewership isn't enough. Sometimes a gal has got to get paid. So now I've set it up so that you can contribute a small monthly sum (as little as $1 a month) in exchange for getting exclusive, exciting, bonus content from me.
Patrons give me something priceless for a small price-tag: appreciation. Ever heard of the five love languages? It took me a while to realize this, but there is a different form of "gifts" as a love language, and it is called financial support. That's right – it makes me feel loved. I hope that isn't too much honesty for you, because my patrons read more personal admissions from me than that!
Visit my patreon page and become a patron to immediately access to my personal revelations, coloring book pages, never-before-seen photography, inspired recipes, insider polls, and more.