Child Trauma, Arrested Psychological Development and Age Regression


Traumatic life events can cause the child to become ‘stuck’ at a particular level of psychological development for an extended period – he may, therefore, often seem immature as development was frozen at an earlier stage.




For example, an eleven-year-old child who was abandoned by his/her primary carer at age four may throw tantrums similar to those one might expect of a four-year-old when left with an unfamiliar babysitter.

In other words, he may regress behaviorally to the developmental stage at which s/he became frozen.

Such regressive behavior is a temporary reaction to real or perceived trauma. Severe trauma can result in commensurately severe developmental delays.

For example, a ten-year-old child who has experienced severe trauma may not yet have developed a conscience (even though a conscience usually develops around the of ages six to eight). This does NOT mean that the child is ‘bad’; it is just that s/he has not yet reached the relevant developmental stage. This can be rectified by the child identifying with a parent or carer and internalizing that identification.

It is vital to point out that if a child has never had the opportunity to identify with a safe and rational adult and has not, therefore, been able to internalize adult values, we cannot expect that child to have developed a conscience. Indeed, if there has been little or no justice or predictability in the child’s life, and he is ill-treated for no discernible reason by adults in a position of trust, developing a conscience may not even have been in the child’s best interests.

In extreme circumstances, for example, it may have been necessary for the child to lie, steal and cheat purely to survive; once s/he has learned such behaviors are essential to his/her very survival, these same behaviors become extremely difficult to unlearn. Below I list some of the main factors that may lead to arrested development.

  1. separation from the primary care-giver,
  2. all forms of abuse
  3. foster care
  4. adoption
  5. neglect
  6. parental alcohol/drug misuse

ATTACHMENT DISORDER: One of the primary traumas a child can suffer is a problematic early relationship with the primary caregiver, usually the mother (e.g. see Bowlby’s Attachment Theory); these problems can include the primary caregiver having a mental illness, abusing alcohol or drugs, or otherwise abusing or abandoning the child. In such cases, attachment disorder is likely to occur in the child – this disorder can impair or even cripple a child’s ability to trust and bond with others.

In such cases, it is the child’s ability to attach to other human beings which are impaired by developmental delays. Since such a child’s development has essentially become frozen in relation to his/her ability to bond with others, he will not ‘grow out’ of the problem behaviors associated with attachment disorder without a great deal of emotional ‘repair work.’


The main examples of these are listed below :

  1. little eye contact with parents
  2. lack of affection with parents
  3. telling extremely obvious lies
  4. stealing
  5. delays in learning
  6. poor relationships with peers
  7. cruelty to animals
  8. lack of conscience
  9. preoccupation with fire
  10. very little impulse control
  11. hyperactivity
  12. abnormal speech patterns
  13. abnormal eating patterns
  14. inappropriate demanding behavior
  15. inappropriate clingy behavior

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‘Differentiation’ refers to the process by which, as he grows up and goes through adolescence into early adulthood, develops his/her own identity and becomes independent of his parents and original family, thus differentiating him/herself from them. And, with increasing independence, he is also able to take on increasing responsibilities.

However, sometimes an individual fails to undergo this healthy process, but, instead, remains dependent upon his parents financially, emotionally, physically, or a combination of these three ways. Such individuals may continue to live with their parents well into adulthood and/or rely on their parents to pay their bills, perhaps because they are unable to hold down a job. 

It has been theorized that the adult child’s inability to differentiate may be due to an emotionally enmeshed relationship between the child and the parent in which the parent ‘needs to be needed’ and so, unconsciously’, prevents the child from emotionally separating from him and keeps him (the now-adult child) dependent. This ‘need to be needed’ may derive from several causes :

  1. the fact that the parent’s identity has become so closely tied to that of being a ‘carer’ that s/he cannot let go of the role
  2. loneliness/fear of loneliness
  3. the need to have continued power and control over the child

Another possible explanation is that the adult child has a personality or behavioral problem, which prevents him/her from becoming independent of the parent.

If their dependence on their parents is particularly acute, they may be suffering from a dependent personality disorder. This could be due to trauma the now-adult child experienced in early life.

However, a possible drawback of a parent continuing to care for a child who has failed to make the transition to adulthood is that it maintains the now-adult child’s dependence.


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