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The Hope and Healing of Developmental Trauma

June 26, 2024

Do you like puzzles? You may be drawn to picture or word puzzles. I like Wordle, and my oldest son likes the 1000-piece picture puzzles. He spreads them out on the table and separates the pieces into categories. Edge pieces, pieces with different color groups, each go into a little pile on the dining room table. He then starts putting them in the right spot and sees the pattern begin. It takes a lot of time and thought to transform a thousand pieces into a beautiful scene.

Developmental or childhood trauma is not just a puzzle; it’s a complex, multi-piece puzzle. However, you don’t have all the pieces, or some of the pieces have edges that are chewed up or broken off. You might not know the picture you are trying to create when putting the pieces together. The puzzle pieces don’t fit quite right, and your picture has blurred images, holes, and spaces. Putting all the pieces together might take a lot of time and thought, so much so that you need to come back to the puzzle multiple times for different lengths of time. You feel frustrated, anxious, and disappointed because the pieces are not fitting together, and you don’t know why.

Developmental trauma is complex, especially when it happens at a young age. Our mind likes to fill in the holes and make meaning of an event, making assumptions. We may remember a glimpse of an image, feeling, or smell; our brain reacts when that happens, creating a belief that we are safe or not safe. If the brain determines that it’s not a safe situation, the nervous system tells the body that it’s not safe. This reaction happens without awareness, creating a fight, flight, or freeze reaction. The memories of not being safe are stored in our bodies at a very young age and can leave lasting effects into adulthood. 

Trauma is not the experience; it’s how your body perceives the experience. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) such as neglect, abuse, violence, and household instability can be the culprits of developmental trauma. Left alone at too young of an age, lack of food or care by trusted adults can cause profound wounds. The wounds of trauma need healing at each developmental stage.

The trauma response of fight, flight, or freeze manifests in challenging behaviors that the individual may not understand the underlying cause of. When a child or adult enters the stress response, the resulting reaction can leave those around them wondering what is wrong. Recognizing these signs and understanding the underlying trauma is not just crucial; it’s a responsibility to provide the support and care they need. 

However, trauma awareness is not just a tool; it’s a powerful tool for those with developmental trauma and for those who support them. It can clearly explain why they might struggle to form solid relationships, trust others, or feel safe. It can also shed light on the persistent feelings of anxiety, depression, anger, or shame that they experience.

Once developmental trauma is identified, the support and understanding of those around the individual can truly make a difference. Shedding light on behaviors that are not a true reflection of the person but are a result of what happened to them is a crucial step in the healing process.

There are some great resources to dive deeper into Developmental Trauma:

The Body Keeps the Score by Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk

What Happened to You? By Dr. Bruce Perry and Oprah Winfrey

My Grandmother’s Hands by Resmaa Menakem

These books and many more resources explain developmental trauma in detail and offer hope and the healing that is needed. 

Understanding the impact of trauma, especially on youth and children, can help us better understand behaviors and respond with compassion to support a child. Being informed and recognizing the signs and symptoms of trauma in children can support the integration of trauma awareness into policies, procedures, and practices. The services provided by Wildewood Learning can support your school or organization in adopting a new approach to shifting the paradigm in how we serve, learn, and grow.