What is Developmental Trauma?

Developmental trauma is caused by energetic disconnects between the child and mother during the first year of a child’s life. More severe disconnects can be classified as developmental shock, and less severe disconnects as developmental stress.

Developmental trauma and developmental shock significantly disrupt children’s cognitive, neurological and psychological development and their ability to trust and attach to adult caregivers.  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. Our research indicates that many mother-child disconnects are the result of the mother having a Disorganized Attachment style. Mothers with this attachment style often dissociate and are perceived by the child to be scary or dangerous.

The Cause of Developmental Trauma, Shock & Stress

Figure 1.6 SchoreDevelopmental trauma is caused by seemingly ordinary, normal or ‘subtle daily events that involve relational and energetic disconnects between children their mothers that are either too long or too frequent. Young children, particularly infants, are extremely sensitive to breaks in the shared resonant field of energy with their caretakers, particularly mothers with a Disorganized Attachment Style.

If these disconnects happen too often or for an extended period during the first year of life, children learn not to trust that adults will care for them. This is the critical factor in disturbed attachment and often leads to attachment disorders and other relational problems in adulthood. Unfortunately, most adults do not recognize or perceive these relational disconnects as traumatic, but see them as” normal” because they “happen to everyone.”

Our Definition of Developmental Trauma, Shock & Stress

Our definition of developmental trauma recognizes the chronic effects of subtle emotional disconnects that often draw no attention from adult caregivers. Because developmental trauma is “invisible” to adults, they aren’t able to provide comfort and soothing to relieve children’s symptoms. We believe that many who are using the term developmental trauma are actually referring to developmental shock and that they are not discriminating between shock and trauma.

shocked  babyEvents involving shock are much easier for mental health and medical professionals to recognize because the causative events associated with it are often extreme enough to draw their attention. The image to your left shows a child with a still face and protruding eyes, which indicate a state of developmental shock.
Early traumatic experiences, anchored in seemingly “ordinary” events, hard-wire children’s brains and nervous systems for a life built around trauma, shock and stress. The child becomes conditioned to anything that might trigger the memory of an experience involving developmental trauma or shock, and the underlying emotional stress associated with them. When children are unable to avoid triggers associated with relational breaks, they react by trying to flee or fight. We believe that this is the most common cause of hyperactive behavior in young children.

Developmental Trauma: A Family Pattern

Unfortunately, most parents have not been educated about children’s social and emotional needs, so they lack skills for supporting their child emotionally when they become upset. As children, parents also never fully experienced emotional attunement with their own parents. So it’s difficult for them to respond to their children’s needs for nurturing, protection, safety and guidance in timely and appropriate ways. Many parents also do not correlate the deficiencies in their own experiences of being parented with their own day-to-day struggles to effectively parent their own children.

The Dance of Attunement and Developmental Trauma

A 1986 documentary, Life’s First Feelings (NOVA, 2000), is based on research investigation on children’s early emotional development. You can see a short clip from this documentary at YouTube. The segment shows a child experiencing developmental shock in the “cold mother” experiment.

The first part of Dr. Tronick’s experiment is an excellent illustration of the infant-mother dance of communication. The next part of the experiment, however, contains something that would not be done today because we now understand that it causes experiences of shock, trauma, and stress in infant research subjects.

Screen Shot 2015-07-05 at 5.53.57 PMThe part of Tronick’s “cold mother” experiment in which he asks the mother to keep a blank face and not respond to her child’s attempts to engage with her shows a child experiencing developmental trauma.When the baby recognizes that his mother is not going to respond to him,  a series of things to happen very fast’so quickly that they are almost invisible.

First the pupils in the boy’s eyes dilate, then his eyes bulge, and his face becomes blank. Then he has what looks like a severe hiccup, and finally he vomits a little bit. What you are seeing in this video is an infant experiencing a SHOCK state. Tronick does not understand that the look of terror on the infant’s face, the change in his eyes, or his hiccup are signs of shock. He does remark about the child’s loss of bodily fluids (also a sign of shock) and then he shifts the focus.

Developmental Shock, Trauma & Stress

♦ This short video segment illustrates four important points. The first point is the the difference between developmental shock, trauma and stress. This process begins in the first part of the experiment when the invasive mother over-stimulates her child. He shows signs of developmental stress and then flees his mother’s overstimulating behavior by looking at his hands and self-soothing, at which point he then attempts to reengage with his mother.

He first shows signs of disorientation during the cold mother experiment when he is unable to reengage her in their dance. Then he quickly drops into a state of developmental shock that is visible in the dilation of his pupils, his bulging eyes, his blank facial expression, his hiccupping, and finally his vomiting. The experiment becomes a shattering experience for this small boy who dissociates and becomes immobile.

♦ The second point the video illustrates is the immense power of the interactive dance between the child and mother, and what happens to the child when the mother disengages from it.

♦ The third point it illustrates is how few resources this child has to cope with a mother’s disengagement and how rapidly this causes him to move from stress into trauma. Then he attempts to re-regulate himself by looking at his hands and then into shock when his mother does not respond to his efforts to engage.

♦ The fourth point is that this video segment demonstrates is the sequences of state-shifting from developmental stress, into developmental trauma, and then into developmental shock; from higher-order brain functions to more primitive defensive responses contained in the limbic system and reptilian brain; and from newer parts of the autonomic nervous system to the older. These are the primary components of what we call the trauma continuum, which we describe briefly in the next section.


NOVA Video Series (2000). Life’s First Feelings. Boston, MA: WGBH.

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