Counselling, Trauma

4 Strategies for Developmental Trauma Work

Traumatic experiences during childhood and adolescent development can have a distinct shaping influence on the rest of one’s life. Not every bump and bruise will have an impact, and many events will be completely forgotten. However, overwhelming or threatening experiences may yield a traumatic impact and weave themselves into the ongoing development of a person’s body and mind.

There are three main developmental patterns that are particularly shaped by the legacy of developmental trauma: attachment, self-regulation, and self-perspective.

  • Attachment patterns affect how a person reaches for and lets in connections with other people. As counsellors, our goal should be to help those struggling with attachment patterns risk feeling cared about and expressing their needs clearly.
  • Self-regulation patterns affect how a person manages their physical and emotional responses to stresses in daily life. One of the goals in counselling is to help those struggling with self-regulation adjust the intensity of whatever emotion they are feeling, so they can stay connected to life without fearing it.
  • Self-perspective patterns describe the quality of one’s relationship to self. This can involve living with persistent feelings of fear, shame, and humiliation. Healing from this kind of self-perspective is a slow, yet foundational goal for resolving the impact of developmental trauma.
Traumatic experiences during childhood and adolescent development can have a distinct shaping influence on the rest of one’s life.

I have come to rely on the following four principles to guide how I support change in these patterns:

1) Build a secure relationship foundation

A common factor for effective counselling work is the quality of the relationship between counsellor and client. Building a secure, nurturing, helping relationship becomes the initial task and is the foundation upon which all other ongoing counselling work rests. It’s not unusual for much of the time spent with a client who experienced developmental trauma to revolve around building, monitoring, and repairing this foundation. The steps can seem simple, yet they can have a profoundly powerful impact on the quality of your working relationship.

Building a secure, nurturing, helping relationship becomes the initial task and is the foundation upon which all other ongoing counselling work rests. 
2) Create developmental bridges

It can be helpful to watch for times when these gaps show up in how a client responds or utters a belief about themselves and to use gentle observation and curious questions to build bridges that allow the client to grow this capacity.

3) Develop a positive connection to the body

It can be very helpful to practice noticing these small physical shifts with clients when they are not in a full alarm response. The body can become a scary place for a trauma survivor. Our goal is to rediscover and re-inhabit the body as a safe home base.

4) Order the story across time

We don’t have to go through every part of the story, and indeed, the client may not have access to all of their memories, particularly when events happened at very early ages. If we can help find the language or expression of the parts of the memory they are aware of in a way that feels experience-near enough for a client, this process allows a fuller and more integrated record to be stored in their memory. Once a person is able to face and work with even one piece of their experience, with support to understand it outside of the panic of survival, they have the tools to allow the other pieces to fall into place.

The healing journey from developmental trauma is often long and winding.

The healing journey from developmental trauma is often long and winding. A person can slowly untangle the impacts of their trauma to fill in the developmental gaps that were left along the way as they struggled to just survive. As a companion on one small part of this journey, I have learned to trust the process of following the guiding principles described in this blog. Often, the steps are small and subtle. However, as the pieces of long-held memories can be placed in their past, clients can start to engage with their present up to their full potential. Rather than just surviving in spite of fear and helplessness, they can live their way into a future with more choice and joy.


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