What Is Developmental Trauma

With the advances in neuroscience and the ability to map what is occurring in the human brain, we are now able to understand the impact of abuse, and neglect on the human brain for our tamariki/children in care.

Hundreds of studies have shown us that children who suffer many adverse life experiences suffer damage to brain development. The term ‘developmental  trauma’ is used to describe the impact of early, repeated abuse, neglect, separation and adverse experiences that happen within the child’s important relationships.  Not only do traumatised children develop a range of unhealthy coping strategies which they believe will help them to survive, they also do not develop the essential daily living skills that children need, such as being able to manage impulses, solve problems and executive functioning (a set of mental skills and self regulation that help you to get things done).

Knowing this information is important as it allows us to understand the ‘why’ behind a child’s behaviour, often the child won’t even know the ‘why’ themselves. It allows us to therapeutically parent the children so that they are able to heal from the brainstem up.

The brainstem (the primitive part of the brain) is responsible for keeping us safe. It is the part of the brain that makes us run away from danger, fight for our life or freeze inside; and it keeps us alive. The amygdala is the part of the brain that controls emotions, emotional behaviour and motivation. It will constantly be on high alert, ready to fast track to the brain stem to keep them safe and to prevent danger. The problem for developmentally traumatised children is that when they transition into a safe environment, the amygdala does not turn off, so the child stays continuously on high alert ready to jump into survival mode. We see these children operating constantly in fight/flight/freeze mode; and normal everyday events signal danger to their brain.

Everyone in the child’s life needs to be aware of and understand the full picture of developmental trauma. A brain injury that needs a ‘whole environment’ approach to repair it.

The first step to repair and healing is to provide a safe and stable base for the child. Traditional parenting often does not work for children stuck developmentally in their lower brain. They are not able to use the higher parts of the brain to have rational conversations or develop ‘insight’ or have reflective capabilities.

Each child is unique and so is their brain.  Providing a consistent, predictable and patterned environment, sustained over time will help retrain the brain. Children need safe relationships, with acceptance of who they are, empathy for them and curiosity to understand the ‘why’ for not only us, but for them.

Now that you understand the ‘why’ we will start introducing you to ways to be a ‘therapeutic parent’ and how to deal with behaviour through ‘natural consequences’ in future additions of Snippets.

by Sally Moffatt, Programme Manager, Caring Families Aotearoa


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