Developmental Trauma – Guest Blog Post by Kim Atherton

Following on from the GetPsyched video on trauma and its treatments and some recent training I’ve done myself, I wanted to offer a written piece on developmental trauma.

Developmental trauma occurs early on in a child’s life and can have detrimental consequences for children and their families. Developmental trauma can lead to long term or permanent changes in the structures and functions of the brain.

Childhood traumas can affect the nervous and the immune systems, as well as possible changes to the hormonal systems, particularly when the trauma exists over an extended period of time.

Sometimes, developmental traumas can lead to children being removed from their birth families and placed in local authority care, with foster carers or with other family members, also known as kinship carers.

Psychological symptoms of trauma don’t always present in children initially, they can occur several months or years down the line once they’ve developed a good relationship with their carers or once they start asking questions about their life history.

Sources or trauma for children can include:

  • Emotional, physical or sexual abuse,
  • Neglect,
  • Serious accident, major surgery or illness,
  • Change in the family dynamic,
  • War or natural disaster,
  • Domestic violence in the home environment,
  • Moving home suddenly,
  • Drug and alcohol abuse in the home environment,
  • Bereavement of family or other loved ones and
  • Removal from birth parents

These sources of trauma can also be called Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) or toxic stressors.

Approximately 1 in 4 individuals have experienced at least 1 ACE in their childhood, with approximately 1 in 10 experiencing more than 4 ACEs.

Adverse Childhood Experiences can have an extremely long-term and inter-generational effect on individuals and their families as this video demonstrates.

Adverse Childhood Experiences have been shown in multiple studies to have negative consequences on health in later life, including increased risk of heart disease, cancers and premature death.

Sometimes children aren’t aware of memories of trauma, especially if the trauma has occurred in infancy or very early childhood. However, the body’s reflexes do still remember, and children can be extremely sensitive to things that may seem very trivial to you and me, perhaps the smell or the sound of everyday things.

Children can become very sensitive and hyper-aware in the places that are their safest places to them, like home or school. This can present itself as hypervigilance- perhaps staying at the back of a busy room so that they can see almost everything around them and see all means of escape. It can also present as adverse behaviours or diminished concentration as the child contemplates the safety of the environment they’re in.

When we experience stress, adrenaline is released which helps us to respond appropriately to stimuli in the environment around us. Different levels of adrenaline would be released when someone knocked at the door compared to if we came face to face with a threat to our lives.

However, when we are persistently in a heightened state of stress, the long-term stress hormone, cortisol, is activated which causes us to think of what may be seen as low-level stress to become more and more unmanageable unless we seek out appropriate support.

Additionally, because developmental trauma can cause epigenetic changes in the DNA, triggers can cause children who’ve had traumatic experiences to become stressed very quickly and the fight, flight or freeze response in the brain is activated to low-level stressors. The fight, flight or freeze response is a survival reflex activated at the back, lower section of the brain.

Once these survival instincts are activated, the blood supply that usually supplies the rational region of the brain in the upper, frontal sections is diverted to muscles in the body and prepares the body to freeze, fight or to escape.

When the rational region of the brain is essentially not functioning properly, it means the child can then not determine the level of threat the stimuli is invoking. Basically meaning, that they respond similarly when there’s a knock at the door to what they would to a higher-level threat.

The upper frontal regions of the brain are also responsible for emotional regulation, and you could imagine once again that if a child feels threatened and the blood supply is diverted, that the child then becomes impaired in their ability to emotionally regulate themselves and may, therefore, experience emotions often at their most extreme.

Without adequate intervention, this could have a profound impact on a child who is still developing emotionally and socially.

However, there is some light at the end of the tunnel. While trauma can have profound effects on children and their families or carers, they can be prevented in a lot of cases with a supportive and nurturing environment.

This has been the focus of family health services for some time and therapeutic parenting can also be very beneficial.

Some traumas like bereavements or serious accidents can’t be completely avoided in life, but children can be helped through those experiences in numerous therapeutic ways, which can be tailored to individual need and circumstances.

The organisations below offer therapeutic support to help individuals heal from Adverse Childhood Experiences and the Adoption Support Fund (ASF) can be accessed by adoptive families and those with special guardianship orders to help fund some therapeutic support services.

The following resource also provides ACE score questions and resilience score questions, which may be of some help if you’ve been experiencing health difficulties for some time and perhaps haven’t quite been able to pinpoint why or where it may be stemming from. (ACE score and resilience Score).


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