The Centre for Healing Blog


Developmental Trauma and Childhood Trauma

childhood trauma human development trauma trauma informed trauma trigger traumahealing Jun 11, 2024
trauma-informed care, trauma sensetive, trauma therapy, developmental trauma, childhood trauma

Developmental Trauma:

Developmental trauma is where the persons relational field of safety experiences repeated ruptured without proper repair, where the environment is a cause of significant stress in the nervous system and there is a lack of resource and support in their primary relationships in order to be able to have repeatedly experiences of co-regulation and returning back to safe and calm. This kind of trauma is insidious, often hidden and normalized within the person's experience due to long term identification with the traits and bodily experience.

The personality becomes oriented around surviving relational dynamics in their environment, developing adaptive personality traits and repressive ego defenses to keep the un-metabolized sensations at bay; this happens within their physiology and psychology. The body develops chronic tension patterns within the muscles, fascia and energy systems which then result in a physical and psychological posture that becomes the person's identity. These repressive structures turn into reactive patterns that become entangled together, coupled with different emotions, thoughts and the senses themselves. Developmental trauma happens within relational dynamics, which is why it is harder to spot than just significant events. It is more often about what did not happen, neglect rather than abuse, missing needs and experience manifest various coping strategies in adulthood including certain personality traits and addictions.

The persons trust in humanity and being taken care of becomes ruptured, and their relational patterns become embedded within their physiology as conditioned responses that show up as nervous system reactivity, resulting in compulsive in order to cope with the underlying discomfort. The personality develops and BECOMES a coping strategy, and the person is disconnected from their authenticity and vulnerability. Often those who experience developmental trauma also experience childhood traumatic events due to the instability of their environment, and are themselves far more susceptible to being traumatised by significant stressful events due to their underdeveloped capacity for self regulation and inability to return to calm and safety after a threat has passed. People who experience this have different brains and nervous systems, their brains are often smaller, which underdeveloped areas compared to those who had safe relationships with their caregivers.



Childhood Traumatic Events:

Childhood trauma in this context refers to significant stressful events in childhood, like a car accident, a loved one dying, significant and single experiences of abuse etc. This can very much also result in developmental trauma and bring about adaptations of the personality and coping strategies which result in a disconnection from ones authenticity and vulnerability, though here we are differentiating between the two. The discerning factor of whether these events will cause developmental trauma is the relationship with the caregivers at home, and how developed the person's capacity is for self regulation.

Because developmental trauma stunts someone's ability for self regulation due to the unmet needs for co-regulation and ruptures in the primary relationship, the stressful events are then experienced as more traumatic than if the person has a safe foundation and nurturing relationships in their very early developmental years. Childhood trauma can be considered those significant traumatic events, but we can consider developmental trauma as the deciding factor of whether those events will either be metabolise or imprinted and whether the person will experience further disregulation or experience the safe connection needed to complete and metabolise the experience.


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Working With Developmental Trauma:

Our first skill we must develop is being able to clearly see if someone has experienced developmental trauma. Everyone has this to varying degrees, but there is a certain level of severity that causes someone to be incapable of self regulation. The ability to recognize this can help us to dictate what approach is best to take, for those who experienced significant ruptures in the primary relationships in early development, we must remember that the unmet needs and missing experience is primary. The need for safety, nurture, support, trust and holding in the relational field are essential keys to specific locks which can help us to start to soften the tension patterns. The tension patterns are often there to protect, they are a brace in the musculoskeletal system which protects the person from a deeper sense of vulnerability.

Only when we are able to help someone feel safe, nurtured, supported and held will the nervous system begin to allow itself to soften, and this happens naturally via our more regulated nervous system communicating with theirs. This may take a long time for some people, as the tension patterns may have been held in place for many, many years and re-enacted relationally throughout their childhood and adult life, remaining 'safe' by distrusting and protecting themselves can have roots that run right through their whole physical body. Developing regulation skills, self compassion, an ability to return to safe and calm, to ground, orient and resource and develop safe ways of being in the body is essential in these early foundational stages, it is the missing experiences and relational ruptures that cause someone's nervous system to be underdeveloped in its self regulation capacity, I cannot stress enough how important this stage 1 work is for working with those who suffer developmental trauma.

Here, the therapeutic relationship is of utmost importance, creating a safe container between you and the client is the core foundation from which they can then begin to work, spend as much time on these early stages as needed. If we can begin to re-create those missing experienced, repair some of the ruptures then we can begin to help the person untangle the vast web of the personality structures which have kept them safe for so long. This requires us to explore coupling dynamics, repressive tendencies, their relationship to different emotions like anger, fear, sadness, shame and to their vulnerability. As we begin to explore these dynamics and start to metabolize the repressed feelings, and repair some of the most significant unmet needs the density of the personality structure can begin to soften. As it does soften lots of the repressed energies such as rage, terror and shame can surface more intensely. At this stage it is important to go slow as there is potential to overwhelm the nervous system which will then cause further dissociation, freeze or shutdown which will then cause the personality structures to re-establish and repress the energies again.

Here we can use our built up regulation resourcing strategies to assist in helping the person to stay present and surrender to what arises, whilst utilising pendulating and titration methods if it becomes too much to integrate. As this process unfolds and the person's adaptive traits and tension patterns begin to soften, the energies integrate into more authentic traits of that unique individual. During this stage we may have significant traumatic memories arise, which we can discern as different to the developmental arrests. These are events of abuse or shock or threat, rather than neglect. Whilst working with these childhood trauma's we can assist the client in safely discharging and completing the survival response that arises and metabolising the past event into the present. Remember, this is something that takes time. It can take a lifetime, and is not goal oriented but rather presence oriented.

Our goal is to learn to safely be here, to be with ourselves and our client as we are developing unconditional self acceptance and compassion, as it was the lack of acceptance, the lack of love and the lack of safety that was missing we need to slowly develop that capacity now, rather than trying to change, manipulate or shuffle around their experience which can further affirm the sense of inner deficiency caused by the unmet needs. The orientation is to, bit by bit, safely get better at feeling, rather than trying to always feel better. Working in this area requires lots of patience, lots of compassion and lots of insight to be able to see the complexities of how their development and early relational environment affected and created their current experience.

It requires lots of capacity to be able to assist someone to stay present to intense and dormant energies in a safe way that enables those energies to integrate, rather than retraumatised. Be sure not to mistake discharge as integration, as discharging these dormant energies won't necessarily bring a re-organisation of the adaptive personality structures. This happens by feeling little bits at a time which allows the nervous system to return to safety bit by bit and re-establish enough resources so the tension patterns can soften, if we discharge too much at once, it can re-establish the tensions. We slowly help them get better at self regulation, at feeling uncomfortably and at recognising and gaining deeper insight into their developmental traits.


Peace & Blessing,
Matt Kay (Co-Creator of Embodied Processing)


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