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Developmental Trauma

January 16, 2012

TLC Guest Blogger: Jean West, LCSW, CTC-S, CT

Most parents are aware of the basic needs of children. They need to be kept warm, dry and fed! However, there are other needs that must be met that are just as critical for children to be able to grow and thrive, including social and emotional needs.  Children require “energetic attunement,” which includes the following:

  1. Skin-to-skin contact:  Being held, rocked and cuddled is imperative for not only emotional and psychological growth but also physical. You can’t spoil a baby by holding them too much!
  2. Eye-to-eye contact: It’s amazing to watch a mother and baby gaze into each other’s eyes. This is one of the first forms of communication. They need to be able to find that gaze, feel safe and then look away when satisfied. This is one important way that self-regulation begins.
  3. Right brain-to-right brain contact: Our right brain is in charge of our senses and emotions. Infants learn self-regulation from their parents and caregivers patterns. Babies require safety, protection, kind words and repetitive, comforting movement.

In Bruce Perry’s book, “The Boy who was Raised as a Dog,” he cites a case study of a young girl admitted to the hospital. Every test was conducted to find the reason for her inability to thrive. In the end, Dr. Perry assessed the problem to be the mother’s lack of physical and emotional interaction with the child. The mom had been a foster child and had been in numerous placements as an infant. She wasn’t intentionally harming her child. She herself had not received the loving interaction babies need, and therefore did not know how to give it to her baby. 1

This is an example of developmental trauma, which refers to various kinds of psychological damage that occur during child development when a child has insufficient attention from the primary caregivers or an insufficiently nurturing relationship with parents.

Developmental trauma can occur through:

  1. Forced separation early in life from the primary caregiver.
  2. Chronic mis-attunement of a caregiver to a child’s attachment signals.
  3. Reasons such as neurological, physical/mental illness, depression, grief or unresolved trauma of the parent or caregiver.

Trauma, developmental or otherwise, requires safety, routine, and repetition for recovery. Every positive, caring interaction we have with a child helps a new neural pathway begin to form. Proper assessment for developmental trauma is crucial for a child to receive treatment.

A new trauma-informed assessment specialist certification will be available at TLC’s upcoming conference in San Antonio, Texas February 24-26, 2012. Those attending will be trained to administer and interpret the Ethnographic Interview, the SW Michigan Child Screening Protocol and the K-BIT, turning outcomes into treatment recommendations. The best treatment starts with the ability to properly assess the problem, so join us in another excellent opportunity to learn additional skills to help children and families!


  1. Perry, Bruce D. and Szalavitz, Maia: The Boy who was Raised as a Dog.  Basic Books, 2008
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