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What Is the Hallmark of Developmental Trauma?

a teen dealing with developmental trauma sits sadly near a window

Addressing complex, or developmental, trauma in adolescents and teens is a challenge for mental healthcare professionals. Trauma-informed therapies go a long way in helping people feel safer during treatment, but other challenges also arise. The hallmark of developmental trauma, splitting, makes it difficult to clearly understand if treatment is effective.

The team at Family First has more than 120 years of combined clinical experience. We understand that addressing complex trauma takes patience, curiosity, and compassion. Our adolescent trauma therapy program helps teen boys living with developmental trauma and PTSD by helping them explore the root cause of their distress rather than just dealing with the symptoms. Call 888.904.5947 to find help for your son.

What Is Developmental Trauma?

Developmental trauma is a type of repetitive and chronic trauma that occurs during the formative years of a child’s development. It often involves exposure to multiple traumatic events, such as abuse, neglect, or domestic violence, over an extended period. This type of trauma can have long-lasting effects on a young person’s physical, emotional, and psychological well-being.

Unlike acute trauma, which results from a single traumatic event, developmental trauma can cause complex and pervasive changes in the brain, making it difficult for adolescents and teens to regulate their emotions and behavior. This can lead to difficulties with self-regulation, emotional expression, relationships, and overall functioning.

Surprising Causes of Complex and Developmental Trauma

Complex trauma does not have to stem from physical, emotional, or verbal abuse. Sometimes, low-grade, chronic stress experienced by parents can affect their children. These situations may include:

  • Financial stress
  • Chronic medical conditions
  • Being nervous about climate change or other societal impacts
  • Divorce or separation

This stress can disrupt the secure emotional environment that is crucial for a child’s development and sense of safety. Additionally, children who have experienced complex trauma may also be more susceptible to future traumas, making it essential to address and treat these underlying issues.

The Hallmark of Developmental Trauma

Family First Chief Clinical Officer Mike Giresi speaking at The Adolescent Clinical Excellence Conference

When behavioral health professionals meet teenagers during treatment, they often come in with goals and expectations. They will also begin to relate to the teen to try and build a connection. Teens in treatment quickly pick up on these goals, expectations, and connections. As a coping mechanism they learned from their complex trauma, they are likely to engage in “splitting,” which is the hallmark of developmental trauma.1

Splitting, as a response to developmental trauma, is the dynamic of staying in either compliance or defiance. Adolescents who experience splitting are either complying with what you want so that they can be “good,” or defying what you want so that they can be “bad.”

Remaining in a state of compliance or defiance is a reenactment of an adolescent’s developmental trauma, and ultimately is in service of protecting them from their hearts. This back and forth occurs because if they’re reacting to you in the environment, they don’t have to look at what it is that feels most painful.

How Therapists Address Healing Developmental Trauma

At Family First, our team of therapists and mental healthcare professionals are highly trained and experienced in addressing complex trauma in adolescents. We understand that traditional talk therapy may not be effective for teens with developmental trauma, as they may struggle to verbalize their emotions and experiences.

Instead, we utilize evidence-based trauma-informed therapies such as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) and the NeruoAffective Relational Model® (NARM) to help adolescents heal from their underlying trauma. These modalities focus on helping teens regulate their emotions and build healthy relationships rather than just addressing the symptoms of PTSD.

Find Help at Family First Today

If you see signs of splitting in your teenage son and need support in the process of encouraging healing, reach out to Family First today. Our team is comprised of professionals in the behavioral health space with rich and diverse backgrounds. More importantly, every team member is committed to our clients and passionate about helping our adolescent population.
Call 888.904.5947 or connect with us online to find the help your son needs to build a better future.


  1. Psychiatric Clinics of North America – Splitting as a consequence of severe abuse in childhood