Temper tantrums, the physical need for daily naps, or thumb sucking—these are things that children usually outgrow with time. However, there are certain things that don’t dissipate without plenty of the right help, including the effects of early traumatic experiences. Developmental trauma disorder (DTD) doesn’t just disappear with time, contrary to what some people believe. Children who aren’t effectively treated for DTD most often grow into adults with personality disorders.

Developmental trauma disorder is a brain disorder

Even though other people can’t see the differences on the outside, the brains of children with DTD look different from the brains of children who didn’t experience trauma. Developmental trauma disorder is a brain injury that typically occurs as a result of early abuse and neglect. Just as a person can’t simply “outgrow” the brain disorder of bipolar disorder, neither can a person simply outgrow DTD.

When people experience traumatic events, the stress hormone cortisol gets released in the brain. This biochemical reaction to chronic and extreme stress changes the formation of the brain. Consider this analogy—think of the human brain like the earth and water like trauma. Over time, the release of water over the earth begins to erode the soil into pathways. As pathways form, the water rushes down those pathways again and again until they become canyons. Like the earth, the brain begins to look physically different than it once did. Therefore, the brain reacts differently as a result. When the brain experiences a trauma trigger, fear becomes an overwhelming irrational emotion. The brain automatically goes into survival mode and the person fights, flees, or freezes in his own way. Such triggers only make the erosion and canyons deeper with time. It is not something people can just forget, outgrow, or “get over”.

DTD may look like just another developmental phase, but it’s not

For those who don’t understand DTD or haven’t raised a child with DTD, the disorder can look like just another developmental phase. That’s because children who were abused or neglected before the age of 5 didn’t get opportunities to experience normal early child development. Therefore, they essentially get “stuck” in the developmental stage of a toddler. Their behaviors can look similar to that of a younger child. They steal, lie, argue, throw temper tantrums, blame others for their mistakes, and have trouble regulating their emotions, for example. Yet, children who were abused or neglected during their youngest years don’t continue to develop normally and “outgrow” it like other children. Their brains are hard-wired to stay put.

The assumption on behalf of the general public that children with DTD might just be a bit behind developmentally makes sense. They believe that the children will just catch up eventually. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

When children who aren’t treated effectively for DTD grow up

When children don’t get the help they need for DTD, typically diagnosed as reactive attachment disorder, their distorted thinking patterns only get more solidified. They often grow up to essentially have “adult reactive attachment disorder”—know as cluster B and C personality disorders. They include borderline, histrionic, antisocial, narcissistic, dependent, or obsessive-compulsive personality disorders. Each disorder is different from the other. Yet, all adults that suffer from these various personality disorders have difficulties with attachment and relationships.

Individuals battling personality disorders aren’t the only ones who suffer. Society as a whole pays the price for untreated trauma as well. According to stress expert and psychiatrist and traumatic stress expert Dr. Bessel van der Kolk:

Toxic stress in childhood from abandonment or chronic violence has pervasive effects on the capacity to pay attention, to learn, to see where other people are coming from, and it really creates havoc with the whole social environment. And it leads to criminality, and drug addiction, and chronic illness, and people going to prison, and repetition of the trauma on the next generation. (see reference)

We are all affected by early trauma as a society. It is all of our responsibility.

Ways to overcome early trauma

Childhood provides the best time frame to decrease the lifelong effects of trauma. The older we get, the harder it becomes to battle it. It is possible to battle personality disorders. However, adults must desire to work extremely hard to overcome those beliefs and behaviors that have been ingrained over their lifetimes. The best chances to overcome trauma is to begin the work as soon as possible.

We can all do something to overcome the effects of early trauma in our society. As parents, we can recognize and fight for the right help our children need. As friends and family members, we can educate ourselves and support parents raising children with DTD. As professionals, we can continue to learn about what works for kids with DTD as well as what does not. As citizens, we can advocate for sufficient funding and education to support parents raising children with DTD. There is not one easy solution but we each have a voice.

For parents, professionals, family members, citizens—everyone:

  • Know that the earlier parents can recognize and find effective treatment for their children, the better chances their children have to lead healthier adult lives.
  • Seek therapy specifically for DTD rather than traditional therapy.
  • Acknowledge that parents can’t do it alone. Parents need professional assistance to help their children overcome DTD. Furthermore, parents themselves need assistance to recognize their own triggers and anxieties surrounding raising their children with trauma backgrounds.
  • Understand that, while love is important for children with DTD, love alone will not “fix” trauma.

Even though we can’t see it from the outside, trauma is very real in the everyday lives of those battling it. Unfortunately, to hope it away or wait until adulthood will only exacerbate the problem. It is certainly not an easy road but there is hope. We’ve seen many children get the help they need and grow into adults capable of leading happy lives.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: For over 15 years, Nichole has helped to raise awareness of critical nonprofit programs and services in Arizona and Colorado. With a passion for family and healthy child development, Nichole has helped to connect thousands of adoptive and foster parents with one another and with resources and advocacy tools for their families. Nichole earned a Crisis Communication Certification (2017) and is on PRSA’s Association/Nonprofit Social Media Committee. Nichole holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism (University of Arizona) and a Master of Education (Regis University) and has been with IACD since 2012.

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As a summer intern, 23-year-old Alex Baalman had his hands full. To work with kids struggling from the effects of early abuse and neglect at the Institute for Attachment and Child Development (IACD) isn’t easy.

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