Joseph was four years when his parents were involved in a road accident. Both parents were admitted in hospital for 6months when his father died. Joseph could remember being told that his father went to heaven and seeing many people going to bury him.

After the funeral, the mother came back home in a wheelchair and from five years to eleven years, Joseph was his mother’s helper. He learnt to go downhill where the mother couldn’t go to and pick firewood and also pick the things that the mother couldn’t.

A child robbed of a childhood

Joseph’s life was not like that of the other children. He never had any time to play because he spared the time after school to go and help his mother. He also learnt to deal with missing meals because the mother could ask him to pray for God to provide them with meals when his uncle or the moms family did not bring food on time.

By the time Joseph was 9 years he was too tired of his life and and become suicidal. He attempted suicide by using some pesticides that the mother had sent him to use on the pests. One neighbor who saved him asked their village elder to get the young boy helped. The case of joseph is a classic example of someone who experienced developmental trauma.

What is developmental trauma?

It is a condition experienced by children who have been exposed in early life to multiple adverse conditions, such as sexual abuse, emotional abuse, physical abuse, parental substance abuse, domestic or community violence, young children taking the role of parents, death of loved ones, neglect, or abandonment.

Did you experience developmental trauma or is your child experiencing it?

Here are ways one can tell they experienced or are experiencing developmental trauma:

Repeated changes in primary caregivers or long periods of separation from the primary caregivers. When the primary caregivers are constantly changed in the life of a child, the child does not bond securely and they constantly experience the world as insecure. This explains why children who had no stable parenting in their first years of life end up having relationship challenges.

Recurring painful illnesses such as colic or other chronic infections keeps the child in a state of chronic stress. This compromises the child’s growth and attacks their immune system creating developmental trauma to a child such that throughout life they get overwhelmed any time there is a painful experience.

Inability of the parent to meet the needs of children which includes emotional coldness, leaving the child to cry for long without providing comfort, delays in feeding the baby when hungry, having no physical touch with the baby and inability to meet the child’s needs during stressful times.

Children raised by mothers who had postpartum depression, alcoholic parents, workaholic parents or parents who were not available for their children for any other reason. One commonality with all these children is that the parents are so overwhelmed by their own situations that they have no time, energy or resources to take care of their children.

Adults using the children to meet their own needs – children in dysfunctional homes suffer the developmental trauma because they largely learn to take care of their parent’s needs, learn to meet their parent’s expectations. As they grow, they learn that their own needs are not important, the needs of other people are more important. This leaves the growing children overwhelmed with other people’s needs but not theirs.

Children whose mothers were depressed or in substance abuse are likely to have difficult births or have overwhelm mothers after birth. Premature births, traumatic births and invasive lifesaving medical interventions also cause developmental trauma.

Use of tough methods of discipline such as beating, severe criticism, comparison with others, control and manipulation cripple children’s use of their abilities, and reduce ability to learn skills. By the time they are twelve years, these children feel more inferior than their peers and this is a cause of developmental traumas.

Patterns of anger, domestic abuse, substance abuse, abandonment, polygamy or polyandry (where one parent is neglected by the spouse and all their energy is spent fixing the marital relationship). These patterns passed through generations cause developmental trauma as children in such setups suffer neglect and emotional pain.

Growing up in dysfunctional families that were heavily conflicted such that the model of love the children learnt were merged by conflicts, neglect, despair, infidelity, abuse etc.  For example where a loving parent is also physically abusive, the child learns that love is merged with abuse and is likely to attract a man who loves her but is also abusive either emotionally, physically or financially.

Another such case is where a child’s parent was in alcohol addiction. The child learnt that love is merged with addiction. The child may largely hate addiction and even swear never to marry an alcoholic, only to marry a religious leader who is addicted to religion, or marry a person who is addicted to work, or another addicted to sex and is having extramarital affair.

 As these children grow, they attract peers, friends and even spouses who fit into the model of relationship they saw with their parents. Developmental traumatized children get into setups that cause them more trauma in adolescence and in adult life when they do not heal from their traumas.

Effects of developmental/childhood trauma

Trust issues – as young children they learnt that the world is not trustworthy and so as adults, they view the world from that perspective. This may explain why some individuals in marriage insist on looking for information from their spouse’s phones/laptops/clothes that incriminates them because deep inside they imagine their spouses are not trustworthy.

Difficulty managing emotions – the people with developmental trauma respond not to what is happening around them but to the pain deep within them. Every small thing only triggers the pain within.

Chronic suicidal thoughts/ideas. While there are other reasons for suicidal thoughts, the larger population of individuals who struggle with suicidal thoughts have unresolved childhood/developmental trauma.

Difficulty managing life situations. When crisis happens, the mind of a person with unresolved developmental trauma becomes flooded with stress hormones which interferes with the brains ability to think clearly.

Low self-esteem and reduced self-worth.

Exaggerated sense of guilt and shame.

Inflated self-image. Individuals who have unresolved developmental trauma are likely to have a sense of entitlement and expectation of being specially treated by others.

Addictions that may range from food, sex, alcohol, religion, drugs etc.

Children who suffered developmental trauma depend on others emotionally as adults (they find it difficult to let go a relationship because they feel like their survival is dependent on certain people). This then explains why some people find it difficult to exit life threatening relationships.

How does one heal developmental trauma?

Since it is difficult to understand what caused developmental trauma in different people’s lives, then it helps to seek professional therapy so that one can be helped to understand and also heal the trauma.

By Joan Kirera – Family Therapist. For more visit Facebook: joan kirera, YouTube: joan kirera


In school, during college days, a girl I related with closely had been complaining about an alcoholic father who was hardly home. She constantly told stories of how the father would come home once a week on the day of choice and when he did, she and her siblings ran into their bedrooms to escape Daddy’s wrath.

They would get to bed and cover themselves but still listen carefully to the noise that came from their parent’s quarrels. This repeated itself so much until it became a lifestyle. Most of those days when the father came home, she never got to sleep and so she would come to class very tired. Most of the classmates she would talk to seemed understanding and supportive.

After dealing with so many issues such as their family issues, academic demands, challenges of being a young adult and the accumulated fears that their father may kill their mother someday, she got very sick and was admitted in hospital where she was diagnosed with anxiety and depression.

Soon after treatment and discharge, she kept saying that she was better dead, that she did not understand what she was on earth to do, that she preferred to be dead other than live and suffer. One day she came to class carrying so many of the tablets and told us she wanted to take them after break so that she could die.

While I did not understand the causes of even how to help a person with the thought of suicide, I prayed for her and talked her into not taking away her life. I embraced her and shared that we would miss her badly if she died by suicide. My other friends supported me but one particular one asked her to grow up and stop seeking attention (he categorically called it tough love).

All of us were trying to help in ways that we knew how. I remember some telling her that a problem shared is halfway solved and therefore they encouraged more talk, they even suggested that we allocate more time so that she could talk out more of what was causing her pain. Most of these suggestions were done in good faith.

The question to ask is, were these methods helpful? I will say yes they were helpful to a level but not fully. Research shows that at the time someone is having thoughts of suicide, S/he may be dealing with a mental illness and with high possibility of having suffered childhood trauma. Other causes of suicide may or can be caused by grief, induced by drug abuse or mental illnesses.

This means that apart from the spiritual support (prayers and any other form of spiritual nourishment), social and family support (allowing others to share what they are going through, and not being judgmental), one needs professional treatment where proper assessment can be done and the right treatment offered.

Myths about suicide

Suicide is a choice and that a person can chose differently – this is not true because at the time one is thinking of suicide, they may be suffering from one or more mental illnesses and these affect the brain functions.

A person thinking of suicide is Selfish. This is not true and it makes it harder for people with thoughts of suicide to seek help if they think they’ll be called selfish.

When some tells a person with thoughts of suicide that they are taking a permanent solution to a temporary problem. This means the person telling is completely insensitive to what the person with thoughts of suicide is experiencing at that moment.

Those with thoughts of suicide are unreasonable and are out to punish their family –  Most people who die by suicide or attempt suicide do so because they feel that they do not belong and that they are a burden to others. They believe that death will free their loved ones from the unnecessary burden.

Only certain people die by suicide – there is no way to tell a person who can attempt suicide from those who cannot because just like other illnesses do not discriminate, suicidal thoughts does not. When dealing with people, pay attention to what they are saying and the behavior as opposed to who they are, or their social economic class.

Talking about suicide will make people think about dying by suicide – this is not true. In fact, talking about suicide is likely to open up a discussion for those who feel that suicide is a topic that cannot be discussed.

People who talk about suicide want to die – the truth is people who talk about suicide want to end their pain. They have mixed feelings about death, they want to live then again want to die. If help is availed, they can clarify their thoughts.

Warning signs of suicide.

  1. Speaking suicide which may include someone saying they have no reason to live, someone feeling they would be better dead than being alive, wanting to leave to unknown place and live there alone and never come back, saying goodbye to people, inviting people to attend their funeral.
  2. Isolation, feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, feeling worthless.
  3. Extreme guilt and shame and feeling like you are a burden to others.
  4. Consistent search for suicide or ways one can die by suicide.
  5. Change in eating and sleeping patterns, irritability, lack of coordination and sadness.
  6. Spelling plans and exact ways they intend to die – in this case it’s okay to ask how they intend to die, the means and when the intend to implement the plan.
  7. Making preparations for their death and even giving valuable stuff that they clearly need.
  8. Self-harming behavior such as reckless driving, sometimes cutting self may be an attempt to bleed to death, excessive use of alcohol or drugs and risky sexual behavior.
  9. After long periods of sadness, a person suddenly becomes calm and suddenly seems to be excited about life. This is largely mistaken for healing but it needs keen observation because most people feel like they have suddenly found a solution which is death. Their excitement is not about life but the new found solution-death.

How to help a person with thoughts of suicide?

 I have heard people diagnosing depression with loved ones because the loved ones have thoughts of suicide or they have attempted suicide. Depression is not the only cause of suicide, one needs proper assessment and treatment that may involve a psychiatrist, psychologist, good social support and spiritual interventions.

Assessment helps in discovering what the real cause of suicidal thoughts because unless the cause is known, proper treatment may not be administered. Once assessment is professionally done, the family is helped on how to support their loved one and together get involved towards the journey of healing.

By Joan Kirera – Family Therapist. For more visit Facebook: joan kirera, YouTube: joan kirera