The Developmental Trauma Enigma

Most people think of trauma as resulting from a pivotal event happening in someone’s life such as sexual assault, combat, natural disaster or witnessing a sudden death. These are just a few examples and are commonly associated with trauma-related responses in individual’s, such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). 

What many don’t realise is trauma can be experienced from events that may appear less in your face and obvious. It can occur in the developmental stages of childhood in ways that are clandestine. This, unfortunately, results in people not seeking help for their trauma-related responses due to either lack of awareness as they don’t realise they experienced trauma or embarrassment as they don’t feel like their trauma is ‘bad enough’.

Developmental trauma is more common than you may realise and is very much a ‘thing’. This type of trauma occurs in childhood due to situations such as abuse, neglect, loss or attachment difficulties, where attention, nurturing and emotional connection is scarce, unpredictable or absent. These can have significant long-term ramifications on an individual’s mental health that can include trauma responses such as PTSD, anxiety, depression, poor distress tolerance, trouble regulating emotions, substance abuse, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or personality disorders or eating disorders

Not all children who suffer from trauma have parents who are absent, abusive or neglectful. Many adults are dealing with mental health issues as a result of developmental trauma inflicted by well-meaning parents who were working with the tools and knowledge they had at the time, yet their parenting style resulted in emotional distress and ongoing psychological symptoms throughout their child’s life. When a child’s core needs are not met, self-esteem, self-regulation and a sense of self become compromised, and they enter adulthood with the inability to connect with their own body and emotions as well as others. It manifests in multiple areas of their life including their ability to trust, set healthy boundaries, express their needs to others, relationships and leave them with constant feelings of guilt and shame as well as inherently feeling unlovable and unworthy.

Compared to 50 years ago when parenting styles tended to err on the side of a disciplinarian as the norm and talking about ‘feelings’ was not encouraged, along with the one size fits all type of parenting, we are starting to understand the importance of matching our parenting style to our child’s needs and personality. What may work for one may have devastating effects on another. 

I don’t think analysing every parenting decision and interaction is the answer. Hypervigilance is just another dysfunctional parenting style that can also result in psychological harm.  We just need to be present, consistent and involved.

We can’t protect our children from ‘life’. Loss, divorce and pain are part of life, and it is not about wrapping them up in cotton wool so as not to hurt, but connecting with them on an emotional level as they navigate life’s curveballs. By doing this we can help them develop resilience, learn how to express their emotions and needs, learn what strategies are helpful for them as they learn to regulate their emotions and manage distress tolerance.

As parents this requires patience as children do not have the emotional maturity to express themselves in the same way as an adult, so deep emotional distress may manifest as tantrums, hitting, biting, bedwetting, not eating and other behavioural issues. In On the one hand, it is important not to read into every tantrum your child has or every time they bite their sibling, it could just be teething, overtiredness, overstimulation or a headstrong personality, but if there is an ongoing pattern and behaviours seem more extreme, it is worth trying to get down on the same level as your little person and see if there is something else going on. 

Whereas the disciplinarian parenting style was the norm 50 years ago, today it is more free-range, and this has its own set of issues. With two parents often working full-time and a greater number of single parents, there seems to be less energy to invest in parenting and children are often left to raise themselves, with the help of technology. This results in the absence of emotional connection and a child’s distress go unnoticed or ignored which also causes the child to feel disconnected from self and others, undermines their self-esteem and distorts their identity.

No parent ever wants to hear 20 plus years down the track, my mental health issues are the result of how you raised me, but it does happen. Hopefully, in this new decade with a greater understanding of developmental trauma, healthier parenting styles and plenty of resources and support available, there should be far more, well-armed parents.

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