Developmental Trauma in Children:
Back to Basics of Comfort and Joy
Daniel Hughes, PhD
When children have been raised poorly, either due to marginal care because their parents were facing too many challenges of their own, or because of more severe abuse and neglect due to their parents’ demons becoming so overwhelming as to destroy theoverall structure and function of the family, these children need experiences that take them back to the basics of care. When we wonder about what is at the core of how human beings develop, it might be best to notice what experiences capable and committed parents provide for their infants. We might note those experiences and then notice the effects on young children who are not consistently provided with those experiences by their parents or other caregivers. The effects tend to be similar to—though possibly not as severe as—the “domains of impairment” that are characteristic of children who have experienced abuse and neglect. These children struggle with attachment along with core aspects of their physical, emotional, behavioral and cognitive development. They also tend to develop dissociative tendencies and to have difficulty establishing a coherent sense of self. The foundation of care for all children consists in providing them, again and again, with the experiences of comfort and joy. Comfort and joy offer children ways to remain open and engaged in the face of the wide range of affective experiences that are central to their comprehensive development.
Comfort is crucial if children are to successfully communicate their distress to their parents and meet with success in reducing it. Comfort enables them to stay regulated in the face of stressful events, receive the necessary help to manage it, and gradually begin to develop self-directed resources to handle stress on their own. Comfort enables children to remain engaged with difficult events without having to compulsively enter states of fight/flight/freeze. Through this ability to stay regulated and engaged, the child’s prefrontal cortex more fully develops and becomes integrated with more emotional/physiological focused regions of the brain, providing the child with sources of resilience, reflection, and intuitive problem-solving that he would not otherwise have. Comfort steadies the child with a sense of safety and resilience and then joy lifts the child into the upper limits of his full developmental potential. The reciprocal delight and laughter that so characterizes the parent and infant’s engagement when both are safe and engaged is central to the infant’s deepening interest in the social-emotional world. This interest leads the infant to make sense of incredibly complex realities of reciprocal communication, cooperation, all of the other features of his family, community, and larger culture. With joy, the infant is able to develop his or her emerging sense of self around the experiences that the infant is sharing with his attuned parents. Within joy, the infant’s experience of self, other and the world become organized around the infant’s parents’ experience of them.
Comfort and joy are “Plan A” for human development. However, when they are not present in a manner sufficient for the infant to actually develop, the infant then goes to “Plan B”, a path based on self-reliance long before having a ‘self’ that the infant is able to rely on.
With Plan B, the infant learns to suppress the desire for comfort and joy and to avoid all situations which might evoke such experiences. The infant is likely to learn to dissociate from his emotions or to become overwhelmed by emotional states that are not able to be regulated. Plan B involves the development of habitual vigilance and interaction strategies based on the need to control all aspects of the infant’s environment. Such strategies often include rage outbursts and manipulation, along with compulsive avoidance and reenactments.
The troubled child is not likely to embrace Plan A when the child finally has the opportunity to do so. Such a child does not trust adults and is not likely to accept the vulnerability inherent in being open to comfort and joy and only have it withdrawn once again. This child has learned to suppress such yearnings and may even intensify rigid defenses against them when they are evoked by caring therapists, teachers, or caregivers.
We must find ways to “whisper” to these children so that they begin—in tiny, tiny, steps—to trust again. To trust in that which was their birthright, denied to them at birth, and now offered to them after a long time of waiting and then not waiting: Comfort and Joy