Developmental trauma disorder versus posttraumatic stress disorder

Theories regarding human psychological trauma became increasingly recognized in the mid-1970s, due to emotionally distressed Vietnam veterans, and eventually led to the concept of PTSD.9 However, interpersonal childhood trauma did not become the focus of attention within the mental health community until the late 1980s or early 1990s.4,5 PTSD is defined as being caused by a single event or specific type of trauma, such as experiencing the effects from war or rape.16 However, DTD, also paralleled with complex PTSD (CPTSD),5-6,9 is caused by chronic and multifaceted traumatic events that occur during childhood that permanently influence a developing brain, affecting emotional and cognitive function and behavior. Traumatized children meet the DSM diagnostic criteria for many disorders, such as PTSD, but the various symptoms of DTD or CPTSD are not completely listed in the PTSD criteria and are often labeled as comorbidities.1,9,15 Common symptoms that distinguish PTSD and CPTSD are listed in Table 2.17

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Most recently, DSM modifications for PTSD included a subtype group for children aged younger than 6 years.18 Research has shown when diagnostic criteria that are sensitive to child developmental stages were used, together with an appropriate behavioral assessment, more children qualified for a diagnosis of the child PTSD subtype than any other PTSD groups.18 Child PTSD evaluation include a lack of verbal skills in reporting abuse and the manner in which trauma-related symptoms and memory are expressed.18 For example, decreased interest in routine activities and play or “restricted play” are considered, and severe temper tantrums are noted to represent increased arousal behavior.18 Other childhood signs of PTSD include “loss of interests, restricted range of affect, detachment from loved ones, and avoidance of thoughts or feelings related to the trauma.”18 These symptoms are tyical for children but are less distinct in adults with PTSD.18 

In short, victims of childhood trauma exhibit many symptoms of PTSD, including dissociation, guilt, and hopelessness, but the diagnostic criteria for PTSD does not accurately include all the important indicators of DTD.1,5,6

Support and treatment

In 2000, Congress developed the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) to offer education and resources to victims and families and to increase public and professional awareness regarding childhood trauma.19 In addition, NCTSN provides patient assessment tools for non-mental health professionals to help them identify specific types of trauma and initiate appropriate remedies. 

Treatment options for victims provide new and safe ways for them to experience the world and increase their self-awareness and self-esteem. Play or art therapy encourages young children to emote safely, while allowing victims to express trauma experience according to their language capacity and maturity level.1,10 Educating victims in alternative ways of relating to themselves and others, rather than inaptly engaging in the 4-F personalities, is crucial1,6,10 and helps to break destructive habits regarding personal and social interaction, restructure disorganized brain patterns, and offer a sense of self-empowerment.1,6 

Psychotherapy with a certified trauma specialist is essential for evaluating and grieving past damaging events. It is also beneficial for identifying self-defeating and trauma-related thoughts and behaviors, reducing dissociative tendencies, and improving the ability to manage emotions.1,5,6 Common psychotherapeutic methods include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR).4,18

In addition, medications may be used appropriately to regulate mood without causing further dissociation or dulling the emotions required for personal growth and recovery. Yoga can be included to enhance integration of the mind, body, and spirit, and to improve a patient’s overall affect.20 Meditation or mindfulness techniques are used to increase self-connection with feelings and sensory and physical sensations, improve ability to control emotions, and reduce anxiety and dissociative or reactive tendencies, thereby greatly improving self-management skills.6,9,21 

Most importantly, the human brain is remarkably resilient, particularly the minds of children; therefore, early detection of a trauma history and instituting suitable treatment plans can significantly help avoid or minimize the various emotional, social, and medical issues that victims encounter.


Undoubtedly, a tremendous health and safety crisis exists within the vast population of maltreated children, many of whom suffer as adults. Frequently, the aforementioned effects of DTD will prevail without proper aid and support. Establishing DTD as a distinct syndrome may prevent confusion with other psychiatric illnesses, offer more insightful solutions for victims, and create a compassionate consciousness among professionals and the public regarding the numerous problems childhood trauma produces. Furthermore, awareness of DTD may offer healthcare providers trauma-focused consideration that may enhance treatment or referral options and improve the prognosis of common ailments encountered in their practice. 

Although negative aspects regarding DTD have been considered, such as enmeshment of other DSM-defined disorders, there remains the dilemma of formulating an explicit condition for the enormous population of abused and neglected children—many of whom tragically lost their lives due to caretakers who were trauma victims themselves. According to Bremness,22 there is an urgent requirement for a more flexible diagnostic system regarding environmental influences and for DTD philosophy, including serious recognition from the DSM officials. Often, the only voice trauma victims possess is an empathetic and astute professional, and it is vital that appropriate action and interventions are implemented.

Maureen Kilrain, MS, PA-C, is a practicing physician assistant in the Cleveland, Ohio, area.


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