Since the original study, the Still Face Experiment has been thoroughly tested and replicated, and the impact of parental unresponsiveness is proven to be profound and far-reaching. Babies are not born with the ability to manage their own emotions and need to learn such skill by having another person as a mirror. Without it, these children are left with a sense of chaos, shame, dread, powerlessness and despair.
In some dysfunctional families, the caregivers may disdain their children for needing too much attention, and react contemptuously to their children’s call for connection and attachment. The dismissal of the child’s needs, alongside the dearth of loving interest and engagement, can be more traumatising than physical abuse.
Emotional neglect or abandonment is traumatising for any child, but it’s effects is especially crippling for sensitive children. From a young age, the emotionally intense child has a strong need for deep and authentic connection. Due to having a more sensitive nervous system and heightened perceptive abilities, they are highly aware of their surroundings and would not easily bypass the unconscious messages of contempt or dismissal coming from their caregivers.
While all children must learn to emotionally self- regulate, this skill is critically important for the naturally empathic child. These children may have a more active mirror neutron system, and from birth, they are more susceptible to emotional contagion— the tendency to absorb, ‘catch’, or be influenced by other people’s feelings (see Emotional Contagion). Without adequate mirroring, they do not have ability to ground themselves. This means they can get easily overwhelmed by unregulated emotion contagion, and be further traumatised in the relational and interpersonal world. Feeling bombarded and powerless in school and at home, these children may then learn to shut down, numb themselves, or even dissociate from reality.
Difficulties in regulating emotions– Uncontrollable mood swings, persistent sadness and depression, explosive or inhibited anger, being easily triggered by external events and not able to manage the emotions that surge up.
Chronic Shame – A persistent sense defectiveness— the feeling that one is disgusting, ugly, stupid, or basically flawed. This may involve thoughts such as ‘nothing I do is good enough’, ‘there is something fundamentally wrong with me’, ‘I am bad and toxic’. Such extreme self- hatred may lead to suicidal thoughts and self-harming behaviours.
Disconnection and Isolation– Because people who experience early trauma had not felt welcomed into the world, connection (with both themselves and others) becomes a core struggle. They may feel a sense of isolation, of being completely different from other human beings. They simultaneously have an intense need for and an extreme fear of contact.
Feeling ungrounded and powerless- Many People who suffer from developmental trauma constantly feel ungrounded and un-centered in their bodies. They may feel like frightened children living in adult bodies. Many get overwhelmed easily; when things happen, they easily feel close to breaking down.
Hopelessness and Despair – Chronically traumatised individuals feel hopeless about finding anyone who can understand them. Many lose a sense of meaning in life, struggle to sustain faith, and live with a lingering sense of despondency.
Nameless Dread/ Hyper-Vigilance– By being chronically traumatised, their nervous system remain in a continual state of high arousal, which reinforces the persistent feeling of threat. Many feel that they cannot relax, and have to always be looking out for danger. They may be irritable and jumpy, suffer from insomnia, and other anxiety-related disorders and obsessive- compulsive tendencies.
Numbness and Emptiness – Because the repeated abuse or neglect was so painful, many have employed dissociation as a way of coping. This may involve disconnection from the bodily self, emotions, and other people. By keeping threat from overwhelming consciousness, they can continue to function in the outside world, but is left with a chronic feeling of internal deadness.
In their seminal work ‘Healing Developmental Trauma’, Heller and LaPierre (2012) discuss the idea of ‘energetic boundaries’ and how these boundaries can be compromised when a person is developmentally traumatised.
Our energetic boundaries constitute the three-dimensional space that is above us, below us, and around us. It buffers us and regulates our interaction with other people and the environment. We are all to some degree aware of the impact of a compromised physical body— try imagining someone standing too close to you in public transport. However, unlike physical boundaries, energetic boundaries are invisible. Thus, the experience of a boundary rupture can be puzzling and distressing. For instance, you may not be able to recognise clearly when and how your energetic boundaries are being violated.
People with intact energetic boundaries are able to have an internalised sense of safety, and a capacity to set appropriate limits with other and the world around. However, where there is a chronic early threat, you may struggle to fully develop these energetic boundaries.
You may become extremely sensitive to your surroundings. Sometimes, you can appear psychic and be able to energetically attuned to others and the environment. On the flip side, you can feel swamped or invaded by other people’s energies and emotions. Damaged boundaries can also lead to the feeling of “spilling out” into the environment, not knowing the difference between self and other, inner from outer experiences.
Environmental sensitivity is another telling sign of having compromised energetic boundaries. Because intact energetic boundaries are needed to function to filter environmental stimuli, without it, you may feel extremely raw, as if you are ‘walking around with no skin’. You will feel constantly flooded by environmental stimuli, including ‘human contact, sounds, light, touch, toxins, allergens, smells, and even electromagnetic activity’(Heller and LaPierre, 2012, p. 157) .
The inability to filter external stimuli makes the world seem continuously threatening, leading to a constant state of tension and hyper vigilance. As a result, you may feel the need to isolate yourself. As you don’t have an adequate internal sense of safety and energetic boundaries to count on, you may have defaulted to using minimising contact with other human beings in order to feel safe.
Developmental Trauma Checklist
Here are some of the questions drawn from a Checklist developed by Heller and LaPierre (2012) on symptoms that may indicate difficulty with the connection (with self and others) due to early developmental trauma.
- Do you suffer from environmental sensitivities or multiple allergies?
- Do you have migraines, chronic fatigue syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome, or fibromyalgia?
- Did you experience prenatal trauma such as intrauterine surgeries, prematurity with incubation, or traumatic events during gestation?
- Were there complications at your birth?
- Have you had problems maintaining relationships?
- Do you have difficulty knowing what you are feeling?
- Are you particularly sensitive to cold?
- Do you often have the feeling that life is overwhelming and you don’t have the energy to deal with it?
- Are you troubled by the persistent feeling that you don’t belong?
- Are you always looking for the why of things?
- Are you uncomfortable in groups or social situations?
- Does the world seem like a dangerous place to you?
Specific Healing Goals
The therapy for developmental trauma is different to the therapy for simple PTSD, general depression or anxiety.
Because of the complicated issues around a personal sense of safety and stability, being exposed to traumatic materials before you are ready can lead to re-traumatization, and reinforce the cycle of hopelessness. Themes such as safety, mourning, and reconnection are some of the key themes specific to this process. The following are some of the healing goals that are essential to the recovery from developmental trauma:
- Locating or developing an internal sense of safety
- Building connection with self, the body, and emotions- through mindfulness and other mind-body techniques
- Expanding the ‘window of tolerance’ for various emotions, so you are not constantly in either state of hyper-arousal (acute stress, rage, tension, and panic) or under-arousal (dissociating, disconnecting, feeling empty and depressed)
- Finding ways to cope when feeling overwhelmed, without resorting to avoidance or compensatory behaviours (overeating, over spending, and other impulsive habits)
- Learning to experience connection with others as enriching rather than tiring or threatening
- Becoming aware of and finding ways to preserve your energetic boundaries
- Neurologically regulating the nervous system in order to cope with day-to-day stressors and triggers
- Lessening the impact of your internalised shame, and the voice of the inner critic.