Developmental Trauma

After decades of research into the effects of battle traumas on returning war veterans, scientific focus is shifting to the long-term effects of early childhood trauma. The ACE Study precipitated interest in childhood trauma as a direct contributor to health challenges experienced in later life. In explanation of the ACE Study, the Center for Disease Control states, “the original ACE Study was conducted at Kaiser Permanente from 1995 to 1997 with two waves of data collection. Over 17,000 Health Maintenance Organization members from Southern California receiving physical exams completed confidential surveys regarding their childhood experiences and current health status and behaviors.” ACE is an acronym for Adverse Childhood Experiences.

More than twenty years after the original ACE Study, a new field of inquiry based on these Kaiser-Permanente findings has generated a diversity of research into what some now call developmental or long-term trauma during childhood. Developmental Trauma is a term used to distinguish protracted, childhood trauma, often beginning in utero, from the better known Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) diagnostic label developed during treatment of soldiers returning to civilian life. PTSD is now used as a descriptor identifying the traumatic aftermath in adults who have experienced natural disasters, car crashes, sexual assaults, and other shocking events in which control is lost. Flashbacks, hypervigilance, sleep interruptions, depression, and acute anxiety are almost always experienced by adults as they move into recovery after the unexpected violence they have experienced. Adult cognition and experience and resourcefulness mean that PTSD survivors have a different base line of experience and maturity when meeting their challenges than do the adults who experienced trauma as children, infants, and in utero. The word developmental points to early trauma’s long-term effects on brain function and nervous system reactivity.

The Kaiser-Permanente ACE research reveals what many survivors of childhood trauma know through personal experience. Violence and neglect do not stop because we mature physically and leave our early traumatizing circumstances; rather, they are our intimate companions until we acknowledge and express in a safe and accepting environment the pain caused by these early experiences, pain we cannot acknowledge at the time of their occurrence because of terror, dissociation, lack of vocabulary and cognitive skills, and our dependence upon those who may be perpetrating harm.

The growing research into early childhood trauma by experts in the field helps professional therapists better meet the needs of their adult clients who continue to suffer the fallout from prolonged early trauma in the form of physical and emotional abuse, neglect and abandonment, racism, hunger, sexual exploitation, medical, social, and/or political isolation, and other sources of prolonged terror. Talk therapy, almost exclusively employed to treat trauma of all kinds, is now known to have little impact on the physical after-effects of early childhood trauma. When trauma happens before we have the words to describe it and the cognitive development to understand it, the experiences become embedded in our bodies as sensations, images, memories, and pervasive anxiety. Talk therapy is indispensable in understanding the serious nature of what has happened to us, but it cannot release the somatic trauma memories. Only engaging the body in the healing process can accomplish this purpose.

My Personal Connection to Developmental Trauma

Saving Sickly Children

In Saving Sickly Children, author Cynthia A. Connolly documents how children exposed to Tuberculosis were routinely taken from their families and institutionalized in Preventoria, state run hospital-like centers that isolated children believed to be at risk of developing Tuberculosis. These institutions employed the same regimentation as Tuberculosis sanitariums for adults, emphasizing bed rest, fresh air, plentiful food, strict hygiene practices, and enforced separation from others. Both institutions were established in an effort to prevent spread of this highly infectious disease and to, simultaneously, to instill dominant culture, middle-class values in populations marginalized by those holding power, politically and medically. In the late forties, with the discovery of antibiotics and the near-miraculous cure they provided for the TB infected, Preventoria declined in use, but not before I was sent to one in the fall of 1947.

The Bed-Rest Cure

Caged at two years of age in a manner similar to the child in the photo above, I was isolated for seven months from all my family members. This restrictive medical treatment occurred when I was only just finding my legs in the world. Before my Preventoria confinement, I was a runner and a climber, exploring the world with my entire body. I chased our neighbours’ chickens and was chased by them in turn. I took breaks from this chasing game by flopping on the grass that separated our garden from the woods bordering our small cluster of homes. On these exploratory adventures, our family dog treated me like a pup, guarding me from marauding geese and barking at bees and caterpillars who came too close.

That life of freedom and adventure ended abruptly after my lung collapsed at the beginning of what was to be a routine tonsillectomy. In that moment of chaos, I lost all contact with my family as well as the Earth, the place where toddlers learn to stand, to walk, to feel their own strength and agency while absorbing the harmonies of the living world of Nature. This experience occurred just as I was learning to assert myself, to say ‘no!’, to run laughing from my mother instead of toward her when she called, to separate on my own terms, safely, and with the spirit of joyful defiance all secure toddlers exhibit. Far from ending when my quarantine was over, the consequences of this medical intervention continue to influence my bodily responses to the usual annual doctor’s checkups and, more frequently, dental checks. While my mind understands that I am safe, autonomous, and very capable of saying no to any proscribed treatment that might be suggested, my body responds in the primal way to a danger life threatening and immediate, one that insists I am about to be robbed of my essential Self.

The Prevalence of Early Trauma

As the ACE Study demonstrates, adults who have experienced developmental trauma suffer a general reactivity uncommon in people who flourished with “good enough” parents in “good enough” environments. Our health risks are higher, our emotional challenges are more persistent, and our social connections are more strained than those who do not experience prolonged trauma during infancy and childhood. The ACE Study also reveals that developmental trauma is not confined to a specific race or class but cuts across all segments of humanity. Prolonged trauma is the great equalizer.

In A Language Older Than Words, Derrick Jensen describes how his father, a well respected judge, commited physical and sexual violence against his children and spouse throughout his childhood and adolescence. An acquaintance confessed that her physician father closed the blinds, loaded his shotgun, and threatened his family continuously throughout the weekends of her childhood. The false assumption that developmental trauma is restricted to the uneducated or disadvantaged economically increases the likelihood that those of us who have experienced early, prolonged trauma have our very physical and emotional health risks compounded by shame regarding our early misfortunes. Often family members sow the seeds of this shame when they insist we “get over” our experiences. Our pain is trivialized when we are told that others have it far worse than we do and that our sadness and fear somehow insult those who cannot relate to our suffering, usually because they are in denial about their own. Denials and dismissals of the experiences that cause our reactivity and visceral terrors mean that seeking help for our challenges is often put off in the attempt to ensure others do not feel blamed. This focus on others’ needs for assurance is a pattern begun very early in the lives of traumatized children and is often one of the greatest barriers to getting in touch with our need for personal healing.

One Immediate Source of Relief

In my work as a learning coach, with specific emphasis on adults who, like me, carry the wounds of prolonged early trauma, I have come to understand that studying the emotional, intellectual, physical, and spiritual consequences of early trauma is head work and therefore of limited value to the developmentally traumatized. What expands our opportunities to heal is a safe and empowering means of exploring personal experiences that continue to be active in our bodies. Sufferers of early trauma know that unhealed early wounds cry out for expression through respectful attention that leads to what Pierre Janet called Acts of Completion and Acts of Triumph. Think of the adult Jenny in Forrest Gump throwing rocks at the home in which she lived through years of sexual assault as a child. Jenny, Forrest, and every audience member understand that “sometimes, there just aren’t enough rocks.” And yet throwing those rocks, to express outrage, to confront the insult of sexual abuse as Jenny does, is the beginning of an Act of Completion that can transform the rest of one’s life. While Jenny dies young in this story of early childhood trauma, not every person with a high ACE score is destined to experience early death. With skilled use of EFT – a metaphoric method of throwing our rocks – help is, quite literally, at hand.

Two of the very worst consequences of childhood trauma are a loss of identity – except in relation to our trauma – and self efficacy. Self efficacy is often described as the ability to believe in one’s ability set goals and accomplish them. Without self efficacy, we are lost in a swamp of self-doubt and helplessness, dependent upon outside rescuers that, according to our previous experiences, will let us down or in some way betray us.

Because EFT is accessible almost from our first use of these tools, and because this practice does not require the long-term dependence upon a therapist, dependence that reinforces the learned helplessness that grows out of being traumatized when we are too young to defend ourselves, the debilitating shame early trauma sufferers frequently experience in the presence of others is not activated. Working through our sorrows and griefs and rages, perhaps with a little guidance now and again from a trusted guide, supports the formation of an identity that includes our trauma history and transcends it. Because EFT requires a specific issue, quite often an early one, on which to focus, it also supports the growth of a new, mature experience of the Self, the Self lost to us through prolonged trauma. As we speak the truth of each traumatic feeling and memory and sensation, we understand that we are far more than the traumas of our earliest years. We know, with certainty, we may be scarred, but we are here, alive to our own reality, and more capable and sure of ourselves each day. This certainty in our strength, resourcefulness, and value is the antidote to early trauma. This is a life of reclamation, of completion, of triumph. This is the life we all wish for; this is life we can achieve by acknowledging the harm done to us as we assure the body that we are safe now, in the present, and growing more resourceful and wise and loving every day.