A young mother sits with her daughter who is struggling with developmental trauma disorder.

Everything You Need To Know About Developmental Trauma Disorder

4 min.

Developmental trauma disorder is a proposed diagnosis applying to people who had ongoing adverse childhood experiences, such as emotional or physical abuse.

By: Sarah Fielding

Clinically Reviewed By: Dr. Don Gasparini

April 9, 2024

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Table of Contents

Our society is increasingly recognizing and discussing trauma, its causes, and its lasting effects — not only for adults but also for those who had an adverse childhood experience. The ongoing mental health effects of trauma are often attributed to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but there are many instances when a traumatic event may cause another mental health condition, like developmental trauma disorder (DTD).

While the condition is not yet considered a clinical diagnosis, DTD is clinically regarded as the “long-lasting effects adverse childhood experiences can have on individual development, emotional well-being, and relationships,” says Charlie Health Primary Therapist Meghan Jensen, LPC. As Jensen mentioned, DTD typically develops from instances of childhood trauma, specifically experiences that happen with caregivers or family members. Keep reading to learn more about the symptoms, causes, and treatments for DTD.

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What are the symptoms of developmental trauma disorder?

As mentioned, DTD isn’t as well known as conditions like PTSD, which is likely due, in part, to current diagnostic structures. Despite being dubbed a “disorder,” DTD is only a proposed diagnosis. The condition is not in the current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Thus, there are no specific criteria laid out for a formal diagnosis. 

However, Jensen explains that mental health professionals can still identify symptoms of DTD and treat individuals based on these presentations and a history of trauma. With that said, according to Jensen, the signs of DTD include: 

  • Attachment issues
  • Low self-esteem
  • Hyperarousal and difficulty regulating emotions
  • Behavioral challenges, including impaired social skills
  • Physical symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches, and fatigue

Post-traumatic stress disorder vs. developmental trauma disorder 

Although they are both trauma-related conditions, PTSD and DTD differ in terms of their causes and symptom presentations. Keep reading for more details.

Post-traumatic stress disorder

Developmental trauma disorder

  • Typically caused by a specific traumatic event or multiple distinct ones
  • Typically presents as trauma re-experiencing symptoms
  • Typically caused by chronic and prolonged exposure to adverse childhood experiences
  • Typically presents as developmental symptoms

Causes

One of the critical differences between PTSD and DTD is their causes. PTSD developed, in part, from the term “shell shock,” with medical professionals initially associating its symptoms with artillery shell explosions during wartime. Over time, the condition evolved as experts came to understand it can affect people who experience a range of traumatic experiences. According to Jensen, PTSD typically stems from one specific traumatic event (or multiple distinct ones), such as a sexual assault, car crash, traumatic loss, or natural disaster. These experiences can occur at any point in a person’s life. 

In contrast, DTD is a form of complex trauma stemming from “chronic and prolonged exposure to adverse experiences” that occur while a person is still developing, says Jensen. “These experiences disrupt the normal course of development and can have lasting effects on various aspects of functioning.” This childhood trauma could be child abuse, emotional abuse, physical abuse, child maltreatment, or another traumatic experience while developing. These causes can also contribute to conditions such as borderline personality disorder. 

However, there is complex PTSD, which develops as a result of long-term trauma. A person with complex PTSD might experience symptoms such as difficulty with emotional regulation, forming relationships, and self-esteem. While still considered a form of PTSD, the causes of complex PTSD are more similar to those associated with DTD.

Symptom presentation

DTD and PTSD present in different ways. “The effects of PTSD are typically more circumstantial and may primarily manifest as symptoms related to trauma re-experiencing, avoidance, hyperarousal, and alterations in mood and cognition,” says Jensen. “DTD affects the individual’s development across multiple domains, including emotional regulation, attachment, social skills, self-esteem, and identity formation.” 

A recent study from the Journal of Anxiety Disorders found DTD and PTSD “provide useful and distinct diagnostic categories,” with both conditions acting as possible diagnoses for children who experience internalizing conditions, such as anxiety or depression. However, the researchers only found DTD to be a relevant condition for children living with external disorders, such as substance use disorders and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). 

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Diagnosis and treatment of developmental trauma disorder

As discussed above, DTD is still not technically a diagnosis, though Charlie Health Primary Therapist Asha Clark, LPC, states that there’s discussion about adding it to the next edition of DSM (though there’s no indication when that will come). Instead, mental health professionals take a person’s symptoms and experiences to recommend treatment. Much of the support available reflects complex trauma care. According to Jensen, DTD treatment options can include: 

  • Trauma-informed treatment
  • Psychotherapy
  • Emotional regulation skill development
  • Attachment repairs
  • Addressing core beliefs
  • Medication
  • Supportive services

Clark adds that “parental and school support are instrumental in reducing symptom severity. Also, family therapy and psychoeducation are important when working with children diagnosed with DTD.” Treatment options like trauma therapy and support systems can help with identifying and working through an adverse childhood experience, such as child abuse. 

A young man hugs his mom after receiving treatment for developmental trauma disorder.

How Charlie Health can help

If a young person in your life is struggling with the effects of childhood trauma — be it from emotional abuse, physical abuse, or another kind of child maltreatment — Charlie Health is here to help. Charlie Health offers a virtual Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) that provides more than once-weekly mental health treatment for young people and families dealing with serious mental health conditions, including trauma-related conditions, like dissociative identity disorder, developmental trauma disorders, and more. Our expert clinicians incorporate evidence-based therapies into individual counseling, family therapy, and group sessions. With this kind of holistic treatment, managing your mental health is possible. Fill out the form below or give us a call to start healing today.

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