6 Unusual Ways to Support Developmental Trauma Survivors
Consider addressing your own trauma and respecting family estrangements.
Posted October 18, 2022 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
- You can provide survivors with a safe and healing relationship based on empathy, attunement, and co-regulation.
- You can support survivors by not demanding to hear their full story and understanding their unmet attachment needs.
- Consider respecting a survivor's family estrangements and lack of forgiveness toward their offenders.
Developmental trauma is a term used to describe significant adverse experiences such as physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, neglect, or other profound experiences of harm that occur in childhood during vital stages of cognitive, emotional, and social development. There are many ways to support developmental trauma survivors. Some are well known, while others are not. Here are 6 lesser-known, more unusual ways to support survivors:
1. Respect Family Estrangements
Developmental trauma can lead survivors to choose to be estranged from their family. Many survivors must initiate and maintain family estrangements to achieve the physical and emotional safety that’s needed to engage in trauma recovery. Family estrangements can be brief or long-term, or they may last forever. Unfortunately, family estrangements are highly stigmatized in many communities. To support survivors, try to respect their decisions to remain estranged from their families or from certain family members, even if you do not understand or agree with their choice.
It’s rare for a survivor to reconnect with their family when they are pressured or forced to do so, and if they do reconnect under these terms, the connection is usually short-term. Be aware of your own biases and judgments regarding estrangements, as these could negatively impact your ability to support a survivor. If you are a family member of a survivor, know that your experiences might be very different from those of the family member who has chosen estrangement.
2. Accept That You May Never Know Their Complete Story
Developmental trauma survivors might not have a complete narrative to share with you. Sometimes, traumatic events and experiences occur when we are very young and unable to store cognitive memories. And even if survivors experienced traumatic events at an older age, these experiences aren’t always stored as a complete cognitive memory. Some survivors might have physical sensations or sensory experiences that are connected to past experiences as opposed to cognitive memories. Moreover, additional factors may make it impossible for survivors to access complete memories, such as experiencing dissociation while the event was occurring and experiencing the impact of intergenerational traumas that may have occurred before they were born. You might never know a survivor’s complete story because they might not fully know it or be able to put it into words themselves. The brain has many sophisticated defense mechanisms designed to distort or block our access to complete memory narratives.
Survivors also might not need to tell you their story. They may have told their story so many times that it is no longer helpful for them to do so. They may find talking to be unbeneficial and instead rely on other coping mechanisms. In addition, sharing a trauma narrative might be harmful to some survivors, as they might feel as if they are reliving their trauma in the present, or they simply might not feel safe enough in their relationship with you to be able to share their story. Regardless of the reason, consider accepting that that you might never know their complete story.
3. Address Your Own Trauma
Your own trauma responses can be triggered by, or may intersect with, another person’s responses without your awareness or control. Imagine this: Your loved one is a developmental trauma survivor who avoids conflict. They were surrounded by constant conflict as a child, and now as an adult they flee whenever someone is upset with them. When they flee from you, you fear they will abandon you just as your mother did when you were young. You run after them and do everything you can to keep them engaged in the conflict so that you can resolve it and they won’t leave you. This pattern is unlikely to healthily repair your relationship repair with them, as you are both experiencing trauma responses that are more likely to intensify rather than assuage one another.
There are many ways to address your own trauma in order to support other survivors. You can process your experiences by sharing them with others, writing about them, or creating works of art. You can engage in physical interventions to that process trauma, which is accessible in your body. You can also participate in individual, couples, or family therapy. Participating in trauma recovery can improve your relationship with a survivor.
4. Respect a Survivors’ Lack of Forgiveness
Forgiveness is often seen as a universal cure for anger, resentment, and trauma. In reality, there is no universal cure. In fact, there are many reasons why survivors may not be capable or willing to forgive their offenders, such as not feeling safe, needing time and space to recover, and having to combat societal, cultural, or religious pressures to forgive. It can be helpful to be aware of your own experiences, perceptions, and biases regarding forgiveness so that you do not force these upon survivors.
You might be tempted to pressure or encourage survivors to forgive their offenders in order to help them to recover. This pressure tends to be greater when the offender is a biological relative, a close friend, a spouse, or a person of perceived importance. However, pressuring survivors to forgive is rarely successful and typically only motivates fleeting and inauthentic gestures of forgiveness. Instead, try to respect their resistance to forgiveness even if you do not agree with it. This respect can help you foster and sustain a safe relationship with them.
5. Understand Unmet Attachment Needs
Developmental trauma often has a negative impact on a survivor’s ability to attach to or participate in healthy relationships with others because their attachment needs were unmet during pivotal stages of development. These struggles can be expressed as a pervasive fear of abandonment or rejection (which may manifest through fawning, controlling, or conflict-avoidant behaviors), an inability to accept or extend reciprocity or intimacy, a pattern of sabotaging relationships or of starting and engaging in conflicts, or as difficulty with establishing healthy boundaries or with respecting the boundaries of others. It’s also a good idea to assess your own unmet attachment needs and how these may be impacting your relationships.
Attachment issues can appear as relationship patterns that are toxic or stigmatized, such as co-dependency, enmeshment, and antisocial traits, which can impinge upon your relationships with survivors. It’s important to be aware of a survivor’s particular attachment struggles, as this will likely impact their relationship with you and others. This understanding does not excuse any of their actions, but it might give you an opportunity to extend empathy to them, which will help them in their recovery.
6. Provide a Healing Relationship
Trauma can be healed within relationships. Yet, these relationships must include safety, empathy, attunement, and co-regulation, which is a process by which you use your own emotional state to help survivors regulate their own emotional states. One of the best ways to support a developmental trauma survivor is to provide them with repetitive healthy relational experiences that address their unmet attachment needs. This does not mean that the relationship shouldn’t include conflict. In fact, all healthy relationships involve conflict and are strengthened by effective conflict mediation.
How can you provide a healthy, healing relationship? First, focus on establishing and maintaining safety. You can do this by listening, being physically and emotionally present, expressing empathy, vulnerability, and unconditional acceptance, and respecting their agency. Once safety is established, focus on providing co-regulation. For example, if a survivor flees when conflict occurs, instead of pressuring them to continue to engage in the conflict, you might remain calm and take a break from the argument, validate their emotional responses, and engage in coping skills with them in order to help manage their emotional/trauma responses.
Developmental trauma survivors need your support. Consider implementing these methods to support them.