Developmental Trauma aka Complex Trauma Part 1

This blog is part 1 of a series, so stay tuned as you will learn more about developmental trauma. How it happens,what it looks like, how it evolves as the survivor matures and how healing can happen.

What is Developmental Trauma?

Developmental Trauma often know as complex trauma, is the term used to describe the impact of early, repeated abuse, neglect, separation/abandonment, and other adverse experiences that happens within the baby’s/toddlers/child’s life.

Examples of developmental trauma include:

—A baby, toddler, or child given up by both birth parents
—A baby, toddler, or child removed or relinquished from birth parents because they have been physically/sexually/emotionally abused
—A baby, toddler, or child who has been neglected
—A baby, toddler, or child who lives between harmful birth parents and safe friends/family over a long period of time.
—A baby, toddler, or child who was removed at birth and who goes on to experience multiple adverse experiences, such as death of a adopted/foster parent or other loving caregiver; bullying; physical illness.
—A baby, toddler, or child living with a safe and loving family, but who experiences sexual abuse by someone outside the home.
—A baby, toddler, or child removed from safe foster home and placed into a safe adoptive family

The Effects of Developmental Trauma:

Research has shown that early trauma impacts an individuals development over time. Traumatized children often develop a range of unhealthy coping strategies which helps them survive their environment. With their focus on survival they often do not have the capacity to fully develop the essential daily living skills that they need, such as being able to manage impulses, solve problems, and executive functioning.

An individual who is in danger operates out of their primitive brain (the brainstem). This is the part of the brain responsible for the survival systems of fight/flight/freeze. It incorporates information from both the outside world and internal bodily sensations (sensory Integration), which leads to certain reflexive actions.

The problem for traumatized child or teen is that when they transition into a safe environment, the survival responses do not turn off. The youth is continually in survival mode, and even small, everyday things (changes in routine or shifts in tone of voice) signal life or death danger, leading to a cascade of reflective behaviors. These traumatized youths are developmentally stuck in their primitive brains, and very little information can move up to the higher parts of their brain, where reasoning happens. All their resources are “used up” as they are focused on protecting the self.

This means there is little left over for the development of other important skills such as processing and retaining new information; sharing with siblings or peers; empathy or a sense of the intentions of adults as being positive or even neutral.


Who is at risk for developmental trauma?

It is commonly believed that children are resilient/don’t suffer from symptoms of PTSD due to early trauma because they were too young to remember the traumatic events that occurred during their early life; This belief extends to babies who were removed from their birth mother within days of being born and placed with loving and safe foster caregivers. Therefore parents and teachers are dismayed when they have a toddler, child, or teen who displays challenging behaviors. These youths are often misdiagnosed as ADHD, Autistic, or ODD.

The truth is that development begins in utero, starting from the moment the cells differentiate and a human begins to develop. The brain develops and organizes in a sequential hierarchical fashion, starting with the brainstem, moving through the midbrain and limbic system, and ends in the neocortex.

Research has shown us with neuro-biological evidence that unborn babies can suffer trauma to their developing mind and body when they are in the womb; for example, if their birth mother:

• Was in a violent relationship with a partner, friend of family member

• Used alcohol, tobacco, and/or other substances

• Has a history of trauma herself (epigenetics: a history of severe trauma in the parents can even change the unborn baby’s genetic makeup)

• Suffered serious mental health problems or toxic stress

Research has shown that trauma during pregnancy means that the baby is born hardwired to be over-sensitive to life’s stresses.

While babies who are removed from their mothers at birth or toddlers who are removed from abusive environments, do not remember their experience on a cognitive level (like an adult or teen); their body freezes the memory in time and this leads to their development going “off track”.


The good news is that with early intervention and support from loving, consistent, patient, and nurturing caregivers, teachers, therapists, and other important figures in a child and teens life, these early negative experiences can be buffered. the child can reach their maximum potential and live happy and fulfilled lives.

If you are an adult there is still hope for you, as well. You don’t have to continue to struggle due to these early developmental assaults. The love and support of family, friends, therapists, mentors etc can be apart of your healing circle, as you learn new skills that increase your awareness over your maladaptive behaviors and give you the tools to replace them with something better.


One Final Note:

If you consider yourself a survivor or a victim of complex trauma and you are trying to feel better, less empty, numb or disconnected then therapy can often help. If you’re tired of struggling alone, I would love to help you. Don’t hesitate to contact me and schedule your first appointment here.


 I hope you found this post helpful! I’d love to hear from you in the comment section!

 Thank you for taking the time to read. Remember sharing is caring, so share if you found this helpful!

Until we connect again,


If you have any questions or would like to talk to learn more about Trauma Therapy, feel free to reach out any time by visiting my contact page.

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Chana Ceasar

Chana Ceasar

Hi I'm Chana and I am a licensed therapist specializing in treating sexual abuse and other traumas. Whether you are pregnant survivor, a parent of a survivor or an adult survivor of sexual abuse or complex trauma I am here to support you on your healing so you can love yourself, find your empowered voice, and have the relationships you desire.

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