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What is Developmental Trauma?

Developmental Trauma is a ‘fracturing’ of the mind happening in early childhood when the basic needs of a child aren’t met and the impulse to get these needs fulfilled is suppressed to uphold the attachment to the parents.

This has very significant effects on the experience someone has of him-/herself, the world, and life itself. Developmental Trauma can change us at a level of identity and can therefore often not be recognized for what it is, by a person who has experienced it. 


In this article, I’m going to give a complete overview of Developmental Trauma and answer the questions: What is Developmental Trauma? How does it happen? What are the effects it has on people? And how can we work with Developmental Trauma?

There are different models about Developmental Trauma and each has its unique viewpoint and benefits. In this article, I’m going to focus on the viewpoint of the Models from Somatic Experiencing, NARM (Neuro-Affective-Relational-Model), and the IFS (Internal Family Systems). 

The different models of Developmental Trauma Theory are able to bring together insights of classical psychology, neuroscience, the workings of the nervous system, as well as spiritual understandings of identity, personality, and life force. 

How Developmental Trauma happens

Developmental Trauma happens, when a core need of a child is chronically unmet. I am talking here about basic (biological) human needs like touch, nurturing, a sense of security, etc. 


NARM describes five ‚Core Needs‘ we as humans have in our development from unborn babies to adult beings. 


These five Core Needs are: 
– Connection
– Attunement
– Trust
– Autonomy
– Love and Sexuality

For a more in-depth understanding of the 5 Core Needs of NARM you can read the Book ‘Healing Developmental Trauma’ by Laurence Heller. Get the Book here.

The five Core Needs are experienced in certain timeframes in our development and are lived through chronologically. So that, as a baby still in the womb and as a newborn, what we need to feel safe is Connection
This includes physical touch and attention but also subtler connection, for example, the attitude coming towards us as a child. Are we wanted or unwanted? Are we included and cared for or are we being neglected? 

For a newborn baby, the feeling of safety arises from the experience of being held. If our Core Need is being met at this stage, we develop the capacity to feel safe in the world and the body, and all the subsequent needs are building upon the foundation of this Capacity. When a core need is met, and the time is ready, we can move into the next stage of development with full capacity and life force energy. 

We then move on through the other needs that are needed for the healthy development of our capacities as humans. Learning, after having a safe connection to our bodies and physicality (Connection), to attune to our feelings and needs (Attunement). Moving on to an understanding of time and consequences: Is what I did earlier still ok later or will I be punished? Can I be myself or am I expected to be a certain way? (Trust). Then learning how to be autonomous and self-directed (Autonomy). And lastly, growing into the capacity to love and live sexuality.

When I talk about ‘Needs’ in this article I’m always referring to these core needs that human beings need fulfilled in order to develop into their full capacities. I do not talk about personal needs or more egotistical wishes of children (e.g. ‘I need this toy car’, ‘I need you to always give me your attention’).

So what process leads to Developmental Trauma?

The Process, that leads to Developmental Trauma can be understood in 4 steps:


1. The need of the child is chronically unmet.
To develop healthily a child needs to get its needs met. For a newborn baby, it is crucial to have physical contact to learn about its own body and its boundaries. Without physical contact, children are unable to ‚land‘ and feel at home in their own body and have a hard time experiencing themselves as separate from the rest of the world. When this need isn’t being met, the development of the capacity to experience ones boundaries and feel safe within ones own skin can be stunted or slowed.

Later on, the developmental needs of a child change, but the story remains the same. If the needs aren’t being met the child cannot develop healthily and hone the capacities that are there as a potential within everybody.

 

2. The unmet need creates stress, pain, and dysregulation in the child.
When a need is chronically not being met by the caregivers, this creates a lot of stress, pain, and dysregulation in the child. The child will start to cry, scream, move or otherwise protest the lack of fulfillment of the need. There’s not so much of a difference between physical and emotional pain at this point in our lives. Not getting one of our core biological needs met just hurts.

 


3. The child has to secure the attachment to the caregivers and cut off its own need.
If the need is not being met, even when the child is in protest, two things can happen: 
Either the protest is ignored for long enough and the child moves into resignation. Or the protest is met with scorn or punishment, which leads to shame and resignation in the child.
Because we are completely dependent on our parents as a child, there is another need, that has to be balanced with our core needs: Having a secure attachment.


If we are being left alone as a child, we die. There’s no way we could make it on our own. So the need for secure attachment to adults is even more important than our core needs for development and growth. 

If my core needs are neglected, my protest ignored or punished, the only thing I’m still able to do is to ‚dissociate‘ from my own core need. I put the need away into my unconscious mind to not feel and experience it anymore. 


If protesting the lack of fulfillment of my need is met with punishment, the need itself becomes a danger to the attachment and has to be cut off. 
If it’s being ignored, the pain will at some point be too much and has to be cut off as well. 

 

4. The child develops strategies to adapt to the situation.
The child will then adapt to the situation by forming strategies to deal with the now unconsciously unmet need. 

A child could for example learn to hold its breath, when in a certain situation, in order not to feel anger in the belly. Or develop fears that will keep it away from situations, where it could come into contact with the unmet need or the shame about having that need. 
Out of the drive to survive, we can adapt to almost any situation. In the case of developmental trauma, we adapt to the experience of unmet needs, constant stress, and the inability to develop core capacities.

 


Out of these adaptive strategies, we form the foundation of our later behavior and identity. More on this in the next Section: The Effects of Developmental Trauma.

Another way to look at Developmental Trauma: The Nervous System

It needs to be understood that Developmental Trauma happens at an age, where there’s not yet a formed identity in place. At the time these Traumas form, we are functioning through an instinctive intelligence mainly informed by reactions of the nervous system. 

In the image below, you can see the different activation levels of the nervous system.

The green box represents a relaxed and regulated nervous system.

The orange box represents an activated nervous system. Here we are in a sympathetically aroused state and are in a fight/flight response.

The red box represents a state of dissociation, also called ‚Freeze‘. Here our nervous system is hyperaroused and collapses into a seeming relaxation. We have dissociated from the energy moving through us and are in overwhelm.


The white windows show the process someone is going through, that leads to developmental trauma – with any core need.


We talk about Trauma when one part of us goes into Freeze and is stuck there. So for example, when we dissociate from an unmet need and build adaptive strategies in order not to feel and experience that unmet need, this is Developmental Trauma.

In the picture, you see the process described above on the background of the nervous system activation from green to red.

This image is an adapted version of an image from the book ‘Healing Developmental Trauma’ by Laurence Heller. You can get the Book here.

It starts with Life Force wanting to be expressed through the Individuation of a person. In a child, this is dominated through its needs and the development of the core Capacities.

When a need is not being met, the child will go into protest. The child will start to cry or show protest through movement. This is still in the healthy zone of development. If the protest is recognized and the need is being met, no harm is done.

But when the need isn’t being met for a longer time, the activation level of the nervous systems switches into a sympathetically dominant state.

In this sympathetically dominant state (marked as yellow), the child will start to fight for its needs. The fulfillment of the need is now urgent and the lack of response from the outside world is dominating the experience of the child. In this ‚yellow’ state, a mentality of ‚either/or‘ is the norm. ‚Either the world is wrong for not fulfilling my needs or I’m wrong for having that need‘.

The child first sticks with its own needs and moves into anger and rage to express the felt lack of fulfillment. In very young children, who cannot physically fight anything, this state of protest is displayed through tensing up and screaming/crying. 


Multiple things can happen at this point: Either the child is being actively shamed or punished for its display of anger and rage, it is being ignored or the parents move into a state of dysregulation themselves (becoming afraid or feeling guilty because they don’t know how to deal with the situation).

The communication remains the same: ‚Your need is not going to be met‘. Only the packaging differs.

When being actively shamed or punished for the display of anger the child will learn, that having the need itself and fighting for its fulfillment is bad. The energy turns inward and becomes guilt and self-hatred.

When being ignored the child can only move into resignation because nothing it could do would lead to the fulfillment of the need.

When the parents themselves move into dysregulation and activation, the child also has to give up its own need, because it can feel that its actions are harming the relationship with its parents.

As explained before: As a child, we are completely dependent on the relationship with our parents! If something is threatening the attachment to our caregivers, we have no choice but to step out of our integrity and authenticity and do (or not do) what is needed to keep the relationship safe and secured. That’s the most intelligent thing our system can do at that given time.

To secure the attachment we have to cut off our own needs if they are chronically not being met. We can only move into Dissociation when the fight for our needs is unsuccessful. This means, that we cut ourselves off from our own needs and suppress them, keeping them in our unconscious mind from thereon.

This, of course, has a very big impact on our lives, as you will see in the next sections.

Why are Needs neglected or not being met? 

Most of the time, when the needs of a child are not being met, it is due to Developmental Trauma already being present in the parent of the child. Here we could talk of generational Trauma; unresolved Trauma of the parents or caregivers being passed on into the nervous system and identity of the child.
It can also be due to extreme situations of stress for the parents, like socioeconomic crises or times of war, that lead to a neglect of the needs of a child. 

The Effects of Developmental Trauma

When our system cuts us off from one of our core needs to protect the attachment to our caregivers, this has effects on the immediate short term and the long term experience of ourselves.

In the short term, the dissociation from our unmet core need is a big relief and success. We do no longer have to feel the pain of the unmet need and the danger this need poses to the attachment with our caregivers. 
So in the short term, this strategy to deal with unmet needs is extremely intelligent. It’s the best thing we could do. 

In the long term, this brings about a lot of problems, though. 

This is what happens when we have experienced Developmental Trauma and dissociation from core needs:

  • We form an identity that is based on not getting what we need. We believe and experience us as ‚not being worthy‘ / ‚being flawed‘ / ‚unsafe‘ / ‚never enough‘ etc. 
  • We adopt world-views based on the experience of unfulfilled needs (‚The world is unsafe/cold‘)
  • The need is still there in our subconscious mind, still trying to be fulfilled (This leads to unconscious motivations, agendas, and projections)
  • Other parts of our psyche are being used to ward off the now unconscious need and keep it from becoming conscious
  • Parts of our psyche are trying to keep us from facing situations where the core need could resurface
 

This means that later in our lives, even when it would be possible to fulfill our needs, our internalized adaptive structure from our childhood is making it impossible for us to allow this fulfillment.

Our adaptive structure uses up a lot of our energy in an attempt to protect us from the same pain we have suffered through the Developmental Trauma in our childhood. We lack this energy in our everyday life for moving in the direction of our goals and need fulfillment. 
To say it in other words: While the conscious aspect of ourselves works towards fulfillment and achieving our goals, subconscious parts of ourselves work to keep us well away from ever fulfilling our needs. 

This is due to multiple reasons: 

  • Parts of us fear, that we would meet the same response towards our needs as when we were a child: ignorance, rejection, or punishment. 
  • Parts of us fear being overwhelmed by the pain still stored in our unconscious, because of the unmet need.
  • Parts of us are afraid of losing the identity that has been built around not getting our needs fulfilled.
 

This all happens while we do not realize it. The processes in our body, emotions, and mind are running on automatic. We are so used to ‚it being this way‘, that we often have no awareness of the different parts of ourselves working against each other.

Only by consciously working with these parts can their purpose become seen and new ways of functioning can be learned. Only by working with the parts that try to protect us by keeping us away from our core wound, can we open up the possibility to fulfill the need hidden behind the trauma structure. And also to free us from the identifications we have with our traumatic experience.

Working with Developmental Trauma


To work successfully with Developmental Trauma, we have to understand that there are various parts within us, which are functioning on their own. They do not know that there is a resourceful adult present; YOU. And maybe you don’t know either.

Trauma at its core is missing relationships. Parts of us have been split off from our main consciousness and there’s no connection between the part and us.
These split-off parts didn’t experience the rest of us growing up, learning, and gaining more resources. These parts of us are frozen in time and still function the same way, as they had when they were shunted out of our awareness in early childhood. 


Working with Developmental Trauma is first and foremost about bringing these parts of ourselves back into a relationship with the adult YOU. Or if you’re working with clients to bring these parts into connection and relationship with their adult SELF. 


For this to be able to happen, there first needs to be a place within your awareness, that is unidentified with any parts of yourself. We can call this place the ‚SELF‘, or the ‚Seat of Consciousness‘. It’s where you just are. There’s usually space, calm, curiosity, compassion, and peace present when we come in contact with the Self.

This is an experience that every human being has, or rather is at the core. Most often, though, the Self is covered and ‚glued together‘ with parts of us.

Because Developmental Trauma works at the deep-seated level of identity, people who have experienced it will often believe themselves to be what the trauma experience has made them believe. ‚I’m not good enough / not worthy‘, could for example be such a belief somebody who has experienced Developmental Trauma would hold unconsciously. Their perception of themselves is happening through the PART that feels unworthy. Their SELF and the PART are glued together so that the person is experiencing themselves as unworthy. 

When we work with Developmental Trauma, we can help people realize that it is a PART of themselves that experiences unworthiness. We can also help them to gain some distance from this part of themselves. Like this, they can start to experience themselves differently and build a new relationship to their (actual) Self and the Part who feels unworthy. 

When we can help people to see the PART as a part of themselves instead of being identified with it (glued together), they can start to experience the incredible resources that are available to them from the SELF. These Resources are the qualities I named above: Calm, Understanding, Compassion, Curiosity, Space, I Am-ness, etc. 

From this place within themselves, people can cultivate different relationships with their PARTS. Connection is re-established to the PARTS of themselves that have been split off or made unconscious. While the PARTS get connection, attention, and new resources through the SELF, the clients gain a lot more space and relaxation around the PARTS and their unfulfilled needs.

Over time the defenses, that in childhood have served their purpose to protect us from feeling the pain of our unmet needs, can be lowered through understanding and compassion. The PARTS that hold the pain and the need can be integrated and new ways of fulfilling the need in the HERE and NOW can be explored. 


Like this, the contradiction within our system can slowly be integrated into a deeper understanding of ourselves and our needs.

This process sets us into contact with the parts of us, that have been split off during childhood. And in doing so we regain these most vulnerable aspects of ourselves. These may well be the aspects of you that make you truly YOURSELF.

So in the end, we do not only release the contradiction in our system and free up a lot of energy that can be used in a more aligned and integrated way. We also reconnect to our innermost qualities of Self, by freeing these aspects from the traumatic loop they were stuck in for so long.

This way of working with Developmental Trauma is inspired by the Internal Family Systems (IFS) that was created by Richard Schwartz. You can find our more about IFS here.

Fuel for Growth and Purpose

Because Developmental Trauma influences us at the level of identity, working with these internal Parts of ours can deeply change who we think we are. Our Self-Perception and Experience of Life can shift into more and more fulfillment and joy. 

If even a little bit of an unmet need can be nurtured, this has a big impact on the whole of our system. The defensive walls we have built a long time ago, can be lowered when we experience for ourselves that it is OK to have these basic human needs and that it is possible to fulfill them. 
We can even develop the capacities, we had to dissociate from to survive. Now our survival lies within our own capacity and there is room for our smaller parts to be nurtured and integrated.

And in doing so, we may come into contact with these parts of us who held – and are still holding – these core needs of ours. We are putting back the connections and the relationships within us, that are necessary for us to be fully ourselves! Fully identified with the Self.

 

Please leave a comment and let me know what you think! If you have any questions, i’d be happy to answer them!

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