Preventing Developmental Trauma

Preventing Developmental Trauma

By definition, developmental shock, trauma, and stress are inflicted on infants and children unconsciously and most often without malicious intent by adult caregivers who are unaware of children’s social and emotional needs. Infants and children require energetic attunement; skin-to-skin, eye-to-eye, and right brain-to-right brain contact; kind and comforting words; and protection and safety during gestation, birth, and the first 3 years of life.

ignored babyMost adults, including many mental health professionals, have not been educated about children’s social and emotional needs, and they often lack personal experiences of emotional attunement when they were children. Adults also do not correlate these developmental deficits from their childhood with the day-to-day struggles they are experiencing in their adult lives. As a result, they are unaware when they are shocking, traumatizing, or stressing their own children, and they are not able to recognize the symptoms of developmental shock, trauma, or stress in themselves, their children or others.

 Primary prevention vs. Early Intervention

Primary prevention is a set of strategies designed to reduce or eliminate the occurrence of social, emotional, relational or psychological traumas in situations or environments before they actually happen. Prevention strategies are often implemented with groups of individuals or families that live in high-risk environments where children are likely to experience adversity because of domestic violence; alcoholism; adult mental illness;physical, emotional or sexual abuse; or poverty.

Examples of mental health prevention programs that provide information, support and resources for prospective or new parents include First Visitor, home visitation, prenatal parenting classes, peer support groups, and self-help groups. Prevention programs reach out to families that are experiencing greater levels of stress that are likely increase their young children’s risk of developing social-emotional or mental health problems.

early interventionEarly intervention strategies are designed to help children between birth and age three after they have experienced a crisis or trauma already begun having mental health problems due to adverse life experiences. The goal is to identify the kinds of problems that people are already having and to treat the symptoms as quickly as possible. Examples of mental health early intervention programs include emergency care, crisis intervention, mental health first aid, mental health screenings, developmental play groups, and programs developed through social, educational and governmental agencies.

Cost Differences Between Primary Prevention & Early Intervention

The Institute of Medicine and National Research Council’s 2009 report Preventing Mental, Emotional, and Behavioral Disorders Among Young People says that cost-benefit ratios for early treatment and prevention programs for addictions and mental illness programs range from 1:2 to 1:10. This means a $1 investment yields $2 to $10 savings in health costs, criminal and juvenile justice costs, educational costs, and lost productivity.

The Politics of Prevention & Early Intervention

With these kinds of numbers, it would seem logical that everyone would be focused on increasing the care and welfare of infants and young children. Well, they’re not. One reason may be financial. There are a lot of people who make their living treating people with chronic illnesses–people in social agencies, professionals such as social workers, therapists, occupational therapists–whose livelihood might be impacted or even eliminated if prevention and early intervention received more emphasis. So these issues, like many others, are complex and involve large social systems.


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