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

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