Developmental Trauma vs PTSD in Teens
Currently, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual only names Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder to describe the effects of a wide variety of traumatic experiences, from bullying to abuse. While children may develop basic PTSD symptoms similar to those of adults, childhood trauma that occurs as young people are developing the capacity to process these experiences can manifest in a variety of complex ways. In his book, The Body Keeps the Score, psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk explains why he thinks that Developmental Trauma Disorder should be seen as a risk factor for developing PTSD, rather than a subtype of PTSD that acknowledges the impact of attachment issues on the developing adolescent brain.
Developmental Trauma Disorder Defined
One of the first signs that van der Kolk noticed a gap in our understanding of the context of PTSD was that approximately 82% of the traumatized children seen in the National Child Traumatic Stress Network do not meet diagnostic criteria for PTSD because they are often shut down, suspicious, or aggressive. Instead, they were often diagnosed with behavior issues or neurodevelopmental disorders. Developmental trauma does not always occur in early childhood and it doesn’t always refer to events that occured over time, but regardless of how it develops, it has a significant impact on relationships throughout adolescence and adulthood.
Bessel van der Kolk proposes that developmental trauma is a better explanation for the following symptoms:
- Pervasive pattern of dysregulation
- Problems with attention and concentration
- Difficulties getting along with themselves and others
- Lack of sense of self and self-confidence
What is the Main Difference Between these Types of Trauma?
Developmental trauma refers to more than just the timing of adverse experiences in early childhood. When compared to features of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, developmental trauma typically occurs over time within the context of close relationships. While events that precipitate PTSD, like being in a car accident or witnessing violence, are usually unexpected or out of one’s control, teens who have experienced developmental trauma may have a more “complex” response, as they may blame themselves for the way people they thought they could trust have treated them.
Both types of trauma involve a lack of trust in the world around them, but while hypervigilance is one of the most common signs of PTSD, teens with developmental trauma may have more blurred boundaries and lack a self-protective instinct. This means they may have more trouble identifying red flags and standing up for themselves when faced with triggers.
For some teens with developmental trauma, they may not react to “stereotypically traumatic events” right away or, at least, may have a harder time articulating the impact, especially if they’ve normalized stressful life events. However, symptoms of trauma in early life often show themselves later in adolescence or adulthood, whether or not the individual can identify why.
Considerations for Treating Developmental Trauma
- In absence of a sensitive trauma-specific diagnosis, these teens are often diagnosed with an average of 3-8 comorbid disorders.
Teens who have experienced trauma are, in fact, more likely to struggle with co-occuring mental health issues. But, if your teen has been diagnosed with a long list of mental health issues, especially if any of them seem to contradict each other, there is a chance that there is an underlying cause that would better explain their symptoms. Narrowing down diagnoses can help professionals come up with a treatment plan that will more effectively meet a student’s individual needs.
- These children’s moods and feelings rapidly shift from one extreme to the next. When they become upset, they struggle to calm themselves down and describe what they are feeling.
Because of this, teens with developmental trauma often display signs of mood disorders. However, their symptoms cannot be managed with medication as the underlying cause is not necessarily a biochemical imbalance. This may also suggest that traditional talk therapy may not be helpful when they are dysregulated, as they may be out of touch with what they are feeling. Instead, experiential therapies may help them open up in more creative ways.
- Teens have experienced a chronic lack of power in the context of relationships, where basic needs are consistently unmet.
Social support is a biological necessity, not an option, and this reality should be the backbone of all prevention and treatment. At Equinox RTC, our primary goal is helping teens challenge the negative beliefs they’ve adopted about relationships through peer support, family involvement, mentoring, and low staff-to-student ratios to ensure that every teen feels seen and heard as an individual.
Equinox RTC Can Help
Equinox is a residential treatment center for boys ages 14-18. This program specializes in the treatment of trauma, loss, and attachment issues. Equinox uses a relationship-based and principle-based level of intervention. The treatment model is based on relationships and principles as well. Students will experience both positive and negative outcomes and learn how to cope in a healthy and effective way. Our goal is to challenge narratives and stigma around male mental health and trauma. Fostering resilience is an important focus at Equinox. This treatment center addresses each student as a whole and helps them heal from the inside out.
Call 877-279-8925 today!