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Very early life trauma

Very early life trauma
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Our early environment contributes heavily to our development, including how we are calibrated to respond to events that happen later on in life.

Very early life trauma refers to traumatic experiences that occur in infancy or early childhood, during a critical period of neurodevelopment when the brain is rapidly forming connections and organising its functioning. Early traumatic experiences in this period can have a profound impact on various aspects of development.

Pre-verbal traumas are traumatic experiences that occur before an individual has developed the ability to express their thoughts, emotions, or memories using language.
It typically refers to events that occur in early infancy or during the prenatal period when language skills have not yet developed or are still in their early stages of development.

Pre-verbal trauma

During the pre-verbal period, infants and young children rely heavily on non-verbal cues, sensory experiences, and their emotional responses to communicate and process their experiences.
Pre-verbal trauma can result from various experiences, including accidents, medical procedures, exposure to violence or traumatic events, abuse, or neglect.
For example, insensitive and/or irresponsible caregiving experiences can create an early environment for children to experience trauma. In this case, the child may learn that the world is unpredictable and threatening and the child may not know where to find safety or sanctuary.
This environment may occur before children can use formal language to communicate (around age 2-3), or before they can create stable memories (around age 4). Nonetheless, these experiences still contribute to a child’s long-lasting understanding of what their world and relationships within it are like.

Pre-verbal trauma: sensory memories, emotional reactions and physiological responses

Pre-verbal trauma can result from various experiences, including abuse, neglect, medical procedures, accidents, or exposure to violence or traumatic events. These experiences may be stored in the body through sensory memories, emotional reactions, and physiological responses rather than explicit verbal memories.
Traumatic events that occur during this stage can have a profound impact on a child’s development, emotional well-being, and ability to regulate emotions.

This means that our early caregiving environment calibrates us (even before we are able to articulate what happened or to form clear memories) so that how we appraise and respond to events is affected throughout our lives.

Pre-verbal trauma: manifestation

The impact of pre-verbal trauma can manifest in a range of ways, including disrupted attachment relationships, developmental delays, emotional dysregulation, behavioural difficulties, and challenges in forming trusting relationships later in life.

The long-term effects can extend into adulthood, impacting mental health, interpersonal relationships, and overall well-being. We’ll discuss complex trauma and its influences on relational attachment in more depth in Week 3.

Impact of pre-verbal trauma

While pre-verbal trauma may lack explicit verbal memories, it is essential to recognise and address its impact. Trauma-informed approaches that focus on non-verbal communication, sensory integration, and regulation of emotions can be particularly valuable in supporting individuals who have experienced pre-verbal trauma.

Reflect and share

How might pre-verbal trauma show up for people in how they deal with emotions and relate to people later in life? How might this knowledge of early life trauma influence the way we interpret and respond to people’s behaviour?

© Deakin University
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