What is Developmental Trauma?

As children our brain develops from the bottom up, starting with the reptilian brain where survival and reproduction are paramount and moving upwards towards the neocortex, responsible for logical thought.

As children we a need safe environment and loving caregivers so our brain develops in the way it is meant to. If that is missing, parts of the lower brain do not develop in the way they need to and the foundation for the upper brain is unstable.

This can manifest as things in the West we have labelled as ADHD, bi-polar disorder, personality disorders and learning disabilities.

Van der Kolk breaks down trauma integration for children into three phases:

  1. Establishing Safety and Competence with Clients. This is vital – to do things with survivors that are not re-triggering and help them develop self-regulation, rather than the fight/flight/freeze responses.
  2. Dealing with Traumatic Re-enactments. This can be emotional outbreaks, fear responses or acting out. There is a tendency to re-enact the trauma and the new environment to re-enact the original trauma. The people who put healthy rules in place become the perpetrators.
  3. Integration and Mastery. Feeling in charge, centred, being able to focus to complete a task.


Van der Kolk, B. A. (2017). Developmental Trauma Disorder: Toward a rational diagnosis for children with complex trauma histories. Psychiatric annals, 35(5), 401-408.