Impact of Developmental Trauma

Recognizing and understanding what Developmental Trauma is can help children and adult survivors of various trauma seek effective treatment and lead healthier lives. Joachim Lee shares that treatment that engages the Limbic System can be the key to healing.


Impact of Developmental Trauma

Developmental trauma describes the impact of early, continuous or repeated loss and trauma that occurs with the child’s significant relationships, and often early in life. My experience interacting with children who have experienced early loss or trauma is that they are often misunderstood or misdiagnosed by professionals, family, and friends who have their children’s interests at heart and do not understand the impact of developmental
trauma. Labels such as being naughty, having behavioral problems, or being autistic often dominate adult responses, which can sometimes hold back the child from developing or progressing.


Who can be impacted by developmental trauma?

The question of who suffers developmental trauma is intricate and paints diverse pictures.
Neuroscientists have discovered with robust evidence that developmental trauma can occur even in unborn babies. Unborn babies suffer developmental trauma to their developing body and brain in the womb if the birth mother experiences the following: a) being involved in a violent or abusive relationship with a spouse, family member, or friend; b) using alcohol or substances; c) has trauma history and; d) experiences toxic stress or suffers severe mental health complication. History of severe trauma in birth parents can even alter the genetic makeup of an unborn child. Besides, trauma or traumatic experiences during pregnancy can cause the baby to be born hardwired and oversensitive to life-related stresses.

The experiences occurring during the pregnancy and within the first five years of the child’s development cannot be explicitly recalled by a person but are what shape an individual’s later development and overall well-being. Developmental trauma emanates from events that should not have happened, such as separation from maternal parents or parental divorce, abuse, and physical and emotional neglect. Aspects such as neglect are invisible as children from cold or emotionally unavailable parents may not notice the difference and may not be aware of any incident to disclose to the adults.

What are the impacts of developmental trauma?

Traumatized children not only develop diverse unhealthy coping strategies, which is how they adapt to threats, but they may also fail to develop essential daily skills necessary for a child’s development. Such include solving problems, managing impulses, and learning new information. The upshot is that children who do not feel safe principally live in their freeze, fight, collapse, or flight response to survive the perceived or real dangers they face.
The biggest challenge with traumatized children is that the survival responses do not disappear or turn off even if they move into a safe setting. The children are constantly in survival mode, and small, everyday things such as a slightly raised voice or transitioning from one class to another may signal danger.

Other trauma impacts include dissociation, which refers to the disconnection or separation between thoughts and behaviors or body and mind. Dissociation is how the mind combines painful memories or experiences into distinct compartments. For instance, the child may recall a traumatic experience but has no feelings attached to it. Traumatized children may also find it challenging to regulate their behaviors and may have underdeveloped cognitive skills. It may be challenging to accomplish simple tasks such as planning, organizing themselves, and learning from mistakes. These skills and abilities are all compromised because of underdeveloped cognitive skills.

What Is the Effectiveness of Limbic System Interventions for Developmental Trauma?

When working with patients who have experienced some levels of trauma, focusing on the limbic system can enhance the effectiveness of our interventions. The brain’s limbic region is more susceptible to the impact of chronic stress during vital stages of the child’s development because of the elevated density of glucocorticoid receptors. Much of the trauma is in the limbic system. Clinical studies have suggested that continuous stress hormone exposure during childhood can adversely impact neuronal migration, neurogenesis, and myelination. This leads to a decline in dendritic spines, white matter, and grey matter connectivity in the impacted brain areas. In other words, traumatic events may have neurotoxic impacts within limbic areas during the child’s sensitive stages of development.


Figure 1 – Limbic System

Besides, since much of the trauma occurs in the limbic system, the most effective therapy for developmental trauma is limbic system therapy. It is all about understanding or figuring things out because trauma sits in our automatic reactions, dispositions, and how we interpret the world. The limbic system is the emotional part of the brain containing the amygdala and hippocampus. The hippocampus is linked to memory, while the amygdala detects threats. The limbic system controls emotions and body functions in reactions to stimuli, including the sense of smell, impulse, memory, sleep, and appetite. Hence, the limbic system is directly affected by maltreatment and trauma.

The most important takeaway is this: trauma does not live in the part of the brain that controls our insight and reasoning. Instead, it inhabits the part of the brain that shapes our temperament, perception of the world, and automatic reactions. You can easily imagine the impact and adverse effect when this child grows up into an adult – ever wonder why regulating emotions and/or sustaining meaningful relationships can be so difficult? When a therapy targets the part of the brain that is feeling and reacting automatically, it is possible to develop new experiences contradicting the lessons that part of the brain has learned from trauma. Hence, updating and reorganizing how an individual with trauma has been wired to respond.

In EMCC, we specialize in treating Trauma and Emotion-Based issues from the Limbic System therapy interventions like Brain-Switch, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) and Multichannel Eye Movement Integration (MEMI).


If you would like to know more about clinical hypnosis and neurotherapy, download and check out this article written by our Executive Director and Senior Principal Psychotherapist, Joachim Lee.


Joachim Neurotherapy 2021


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