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  • Writer's pictureDayna Sharp, LCSW

Healing from Developmental Trauma


Developmental trauma refers to any kind of adverse experience that interrupts the typical development of a young child's brain and mind--including the ability to regulate emotions, self soothe, find safety and comfort in relationships and build a consistent and positive sense of oneself.

Childhood is a time when we are learning about the world around us, figuring out who we are and how we would best spend our time here on planet Earth. From our earliest steps, to our first school day to our first intimate relationship, we take a series of big leaps of faith toward independence--our choices answering the question--who am I? Children necessarily are curious, this is how they learn. And they're learning all the time. Of course, they're learning language, academics and social skills. But underneath all of that, they're also learning how life is lived. This type of learning isn't about facts, but process. It's like riding a bicycle. It's not what to learn, but it's a matter of how. And kids are learning how to be in relationships, how to be in relationship with themselves, how to manage their stresses, anxieties and fears, how to understand making mistakes, etc.


But when children experience a traumatic event--especially when there isn't an available adult to help them through it, or if kids experience relational trauma in which their basic emotional needs are consistently not met, kids can't be curious, they don't have the freedom to make real choices--instead, they are necessarily focused on emotional survival. And it's likely that the "hows" that they're learning are: the world isn't safe, relationships aren't safe, I am inherently bad or unlovable and I need to protect myself at all cost. When these kinds of "lessons" are learned, children can carry these beliefs, behaviors and really--relational organizing system--throughout their adult lives.


The Tricky Things about Developmental Trauma


What makes developmental trauma particularly challenging, is that these painful memories aren't just facts or even concrete memories of what happened or how one felt. Instead, they are memories that are embedded deep into our procedural memory system. It's kind of like why we never forget how to ride a bike once we've learned. We don't think about what to do--first I put one foot on the pedal, then I sit on the seat, then I... Instead, it just happens. Once we learn, we get on the bike and just....go! The same is true for developmental trauma. We don't think about protecting ourselves in relationships--we just do it. It's automatic.


The other challenge is that when developmental trauma happens in early childhood, or comes along with relational trauma, it's often especially difficult to put our experience into words. We simply may not remember verbally, because we didn't have words when the trauma happened. It can also be hard to recognize relational trauma, because these are the only caregiving relationships we've ever had--we simply don't realize that it could have been any other way.


How to Overcome the Aftermath of Developmental Trauma


The good news is that it is certainly possible to heal from developmental trauma, despite its challenges. Finding a therapist who is knowledgeable in this area is an important first step. Your therapy should be a safe place, but also one that feels challenging. Healing requires hard work and another one of those leaps of faith, but if you want it, can be amazingly worth it in the end.


Because developmental trauma lives in the "how" of our worlds, the work toward healing is largely relational, meaning that part of the work is exploring the way you relate to yourself, and part of the work is exploring the way you relate to others. Phillip Bromberg wrote "the processing of early trauma...does not free a patient from what was done to her in the past, but from what she has had to do to herself and to others in order to live with what was done to her in the past". Of course, there's nothing anyone can do to "erase" the past--it will always be with you to some extent. But you've had to protect yourself, adapt, to survive the pain and trauma in your childhood, and often those very adaptations--even though they've helped you to get through--can end up hurting you. Maybe you avoid relationships, don't get too close. Or maybe you jump into relationships because feeling alone is too painful. Maybe you punish yourself for being "bad" or making a mistake so you don't put yourself at risk from being punished by another. Maybe you give up, so that you don't have risk failing. All of these strategies can leave you "stuck" in suffering to some extent or another, and a large part of therapy is learning how to be in a relationship with an other (therapist) and your self in a way that doesn't only not hurt, but can even feel good, comforting, dependable and safe.


There is no "quick fix" for developmental trauma. Healing takes time. But there is hope. I am confident to say that because I've seen so many of my clients break free from suffering. They feel better about themselves, and are able to find and sustain relationships that feel satisfying, mutual, comforting, trustworthy.


If you are ready to feel better, to live more freely, if you are open to looking at how you've adapted to trauma and how it's impacting you today, take that leap!


Call Creating Space Counseling and Wellness today to schedule your first appointment! 856-281-1664



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