Tag Archives: Arrested Development

Child Trauma, Arrested Psychological Development and Age Regression

Arrested Psychological Development

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 behaviour 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 internalising 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 internalise 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 behaviours are essential to his/her very survival, these same behaviours 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


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 behaviours 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 behaviour
  15. inappropriate clingy behaviour



‘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 theorised 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 behavioural 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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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).


Do You Feel You Got Psychologically ‘Stuck’ At The Time Of Your Trauma?

If we experienced significant trauma in the past we may find we became intensely, psychologically caught up in it, and it retains such a mental hold over us, that it now feels we are almost ‘trapped in time’, unable to contemplate, let alone plan for, the future. Instead, we may find, very much against our own wishes, that we are obsessively thinking about our traumatic experiences and how these experiences have emotionally damaged us.

In young people, this can result in a phenomenon known as : arrested psychological development. (Click here to read my article on this) which means that the affected person gets ‘stuck’ at the stage of psychological development s /he was at at the time of the traumatic experience.

Hence, a forty-year-old who experienced severe childhood trauma in his/her teens, if s /he has not undergone therapy, may find s /he still has the emotional maturity level of a thirteen-year-old (or, indeed, a highly disturbed thirteen-year-old), perhaps prone to child-like tantrums and explosions of fury, impulsivity and difficulty forming mature relationships.

The psychologists Jarisch and Herbert (1998) theorised that, ‘a person’s energy gets stuck’ at the time the trauma occurred so that, from then on, everything that this person does in life is clouded, overshadowed and dominated by the memories of the trauma.

In psychological terms, it is always Groundhog Day. Emotionally, we are mired in quick-sand. Sinking. Always sinking.

Indeed, it becomes increasingly difficult to remember how we felt before our traumatic experiences. It is as if our life before the trauma was lived by another person, to all intents and purposes a stranger, and a stranger with whom we tragically no longer have anything in common.

We may feel our position is hopeless and that we are powerless to do anything about it. We may once have been confident and outgoing, but now feel psychologically delicate and fragile and, therefore, highly vulnerable. We no longer ever feel safe and secure.

On top of all this, our views, opinions and general interpretation of life’s events, especially our interpretation of what others say and do, becomes warped and distorted by the lens of trauma through which we are condemned to view things. Cynicism and pessimism are now likely to take their place amongst our primary characteristics.

Is Recovery Possible?

People afflicted in this manner CAN and DO get better ( irrespective of how bleak one’s prognosis may subjectively seem).

However, in order to achieve recovery it is imperative that we take the first step which will lay the foundation of our recovery : a belief that we CAN get better.

This can be extremely hard if we are clinically depressed as it leads to feelings of utter hopelessness and powerlessness (and therefore also to an extremely tenaciously held view that things will never get better, even when this is quite clearly (in objective terms) not the case.

Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT)

As some readers will know already, CBT can be very effective treatment for people suffering from the kind of condition described above.



David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

More on How Trauma and Stress can Affect the Child’s Developing Brain.

Our brains developed over millions of years of evolution. Different parts of the modern human brain evolved at different periods of this enormous time span.

The most primitive part of the modern brain, which evolved first, is known, rather unflatteringly, as the REPTILIAN brain. This part of our brain is ‘in charge’ of BASIC SURVIVAL PROCESSES such as the physiological aspects of the well-known FIGHT/FLIGHT RESPONSE such as heart rate.

In contrast, the part of our brain which developed most recently (the NEOCORTEX) is involved with HIGHER LEVEL PROCESSING such as complex learning, talking and forming relationships with others.

Children who experience CHRONIC and SEVERE TRAUMA as they are growing up automatically UTILIZE THE MORE PRIMITIVE PART OF THE BRAIN FAR MORE THAN NORMAL as they are driven by the adverse environment that they inhabit to FOCUS ON SURVIVAL

This comes at the expense of the development of the regions of the brain concerned with higher level mental functioning – indeed, this part of the brain can become SIGNIFICANTLY UNDER-UTILIZED, thus IMPAIRING ITS DEVELOPMENT. This can lead to the child:

– developing a brain which is smaller than normal

– developing less neural connection in the parts of the brain involved with higher level mental processing.

In short, then, the primitive part of the brain becomes OVER-EXERCISED, whilst the part of the brain which has most recently evolved becomes UNDER-EXERCISED.


The three regions of the brain shown above evolved at different times in our evolutionary history – the most primitive part is called the REPTILIAN BRAIN and controls our basic survival mechanisms. The most recently evolved part is the NEOCORTEX which is involved in higher level mental processes such as abstract thought.




This results in the child becoming HYPER-SENSITIVE to the ADVERSE EFFECTS OF STRESS.

Because of this, such a child is far less able to deal with stress (i.e. s/he has a far lower stress- tolerance threshold) than children who have been fortunate enough to grow up in a more benign environment (all else being equal).


Such dramatic responses are especially likely if the triggering event reminds the child, however indirectly, of the original experience of trauma.

Children suffering from such a condition may:

– have great difficulty concentrating/focussing their attention

– experience high levels of restlessness and agitation

– have high levels of anxiety

– behave aggressively/violently when under stress

– bully others (often, subconsciously, to gain a sense of control in a world in which they feel essentially powerless).



If the child develops PTSD as a result of his/her traumatic experiences his/her body will develop a chronic tendency to OVER-PRODUCE STRESS HORMONES (e.g. cortisol) on a day-to-day basis which may INTERFERE WITH HIS/HER ABILITY TO LEARN.



dissociation (‘zoning out’)

arrested development (e.g. suddenly stops talking)

nightmares/night terrors

– frequent waking during the night

– violent play (e.g. acting out violent scenarios with toys)

– frequent drawing/painting of extremely violent scenes

bed wetting

– somatic complaints (e.g. stomach aches, headaches etc)

– anxiety/depression

– general behavioural problems / acting out

– problem drinking/drug use



However, the positive news is that, because of an innate quality of the brain called NEUROPLASTICITY, it is able to repair and ‘rewire’ itself, thus reversing the damage done in childhood. The following experiences may help this to happen:

– physical activity

– the development of new skills

– relaxation and avoidance of stress

– healthy, pleasurable experiences

– the development of warm, emotionally fulfilling relationships

– enjoyable social activity

On the other hand, the following are likely to hinder recovery:

– continued exposure to stress

– substance misuse

(Click here to read more about this).



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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).