Developmental trauma disorder: pros and cons
of including formal criteria in the psychiatric
Marc Schmid1*, Franz Petermann2and Joerg M Fegert3
Background: This article reviews the current debate on developmental trauma disorder (DTD) with respect to
formalizing its diagnostic criteria. Victims of abuse, neglect, and maltreatment in childhood often develop a wide
range of age-dependent psychopathologies with various mental comorbidities. The supporters of a formal DTD
diagnosis argue that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) does not cover all consequences of severe and complex
traumatization in childhood.
Discussion: Traumatized individuals are difficult to treat, but clinical experience has shown that they tend to
benefit from specific trauma therapy. A main argument against inclusion of formal DTD criteria into existing
diagnostic systems is that emphasis on the etiology of the disorder might force current diagnostic systems to
deviate from their purely descriptive nature. Furthermore, comorbidities and biological aspects of the disorder may
be underdiagnosed using the DTD criteria.
Summary: Here, we discuss arguments for and against the proposal of DTD criteria and address implications and
consequences for the clinical practice.
Keywords: Comorbidity, Developmental psychopathology, Developmental trauma disorder (DTD), Dissociation,
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Inclusion of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in
psychiatric diagnostic systems represents an important
milestone since a clear connection between traumatic
experiences and mental disorders have not been estab-
lished previously [1-3]. Clinicians in the field of child
and adolescent psychiatry and clinical psychology have
to face acute traumatized children and victims of differ-
ent shades and forms of chronic child abuse, maltreat-
ment and neglect.
In the clinical setting, the effects of neglect, maltreat-
ment, and abuse are noticeable which has prompted the
need for a diagnosis capable of creating the connection
between developmental and psychopathological aspects.
In children and adolescents, the usefulness of diagnostic
criteria of PTSD is limited because the characterization of
the condition is based on symptoms in adults. Because
most symptoms are subjective and require verbal descrip-
tion by the patient, the diagnosis of PTSD in younger
children remains challenging. In the presence of distinct,
well-defined traumata and their effects, the diagnosis of
PTSD can be readily made; childhood traumatization and
neglect tend to be more complex and may entail a multi-
tude of psychosocial risk factors. Therefore, various
proposals for diagnostic criteria have been published
which include developmental psychology factors [4-7].
Most traumatic experiences in children and adole-
scents occur in their immediate social environment
[5,8,9]. Families with neglected, maltreated, or abused
children often carry a number of additional risk factors,
such as mental disorders in parents, poverty, cramped
living conditions, or social isolation [5,10,11]. Moreover,
childhood traumatization leads to a significantly higher
risk of suffering other traumata in adult life [12,13].
Many severely maltreated, sexually abused, or neglec-
ted children who had suffered repeated traumatic events
* Correspondence: marc.Schmid@upkbs.ch
1Department of child and adolescent psychiatry University Basel,
Schanzenstrasse 13, CH-4056, Basel, Switzerland
Full list of author information is available at the end of the article
© 2013 Schmid et al.; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative
Commons Attribution License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and
reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
Schmid et al. BMC Psychiatry 2013, 13:3
(i.e., chronic or sequential traumatization) do not fulfill
the diagnostic criteria of PTSD in the strict (adult) sense.
Frequently, affected children experience a multitude of
other psychopathological symptoms [14-16] that often
persist into adulthood, thus making a more systematic
description of the particular symptoms necessary. Terr’s
concept , one of the most influential proposals for the
improvement of diagnostic processes, categorized trau-
mata into single, well-defined, more public traumata
such as accidents, natural disasters, and wartime experi-
ences (type I), and a series of related, sequential trau-
mata such as neglect, maltreatment, and sexual abuse
often committed secretly and over longer time periods by
persons close to the victim (type II). While type I trau-
matization often produces the classic psychopathological
symptoms of PTSD, sequential traumatization may result
in impaired development of personality and heterogene-
ous psychopathological symptoms. Dissociation, low self-
efficacy, impaired regulation of emotion, somatization,
and disturbed perception of self and others are all among
the symptoms caused by chronic traumatization .
Repeatedly traumatized patients tend to exhibit a typical
pattern of successive disorders, i.e., regulatory disorder
during infancy, attachment disorders with or without
disinhibition at preschool age, hyperkinetic conduct dis-
order at school age, or combined conduct and emotional
disorders during adolescence. In later years, personal-
ity disorders are common and often accompanied by
substance abuse, self-harm, and affective disorders. It is
assumed that the same fundamental deficiencies (like
impaired regulation of emotion, low self-efficacy, ten-
dency towards dissociation) have variable consequences
at different developmental stages of the patient, thus
resulting in typical age-related psychopathological symp-
toms  (see Figure 1).
Most literature reviews in this field focus on cross-
sectional studies. Longitudinal studies are rare as they are
difficult to conduct and constrained by ethical limitations.
There are only a few highly important studies supporting
the relevance of interpersonal trauma for developmental
psychopathology from childhood to adulthood [4,14,18].
Empirical evidence of the course of PTSD indicates that
severe sequential traumatization mostly begins in child-
hood showing an inverse correlation between the age of
onset of traumatization and the severity of symptoms.
This gave rise to the need of improved understanding of
developmental aspects in children and adolescents with a
complex trauma history .
In an effort to establish a rational diagnosis in severely
traumatized children, several authors postulated a refined
list of criteria [1,17,19]. To separate these criteria from
those for PTSD, the term ‘developmental trauma disorder’
(DTD) was suggested  (see list of symptoms below).
List of symptoms: consensus of proposed diagnostic
criteria for developmental trauma disorder
In the present paper, the suitability and limitations of the
criteria postulated in the diagnosis of DTD are reviewed,
and implications and consequences for clinical practice
Proposed diagnostic criteria and symptom clusters
To include DTD in the DSM-V algorithm for separated
diagnosis, van der Kolk et al. proposed the following
criteria (organized into three symptom clusters) in
Figure 1 Development heterotopia of trauma.
Schmid et al. BMC Psychiatry 2013, 13:3
Page 2 of 12
addition to the defined symptoms of PTSD (see List of
• Symptoms of emotional and physiological
• Problems with conduct and attention regulation
• Difficulties with self-esteem regulation and in
managing social connections.
In the following, these symptom clusters are addressed
in more detail.
Symptoms of emotional and physiological dysregulation/
Chronic activation of neurobiological systems involved
in the regulation of stress and emotion appears to
potentiate activation of the relevant neurotransmitters
and neuroendocrinological systems. This has also been
implicated in severe emotional dysregulation [21,22].
Several studies reported clear differences in the aptitude
of children with and without traumata in regulation and
recognition of emotion [23-25].
Subjects with difficulties in regulation of emotion react
faster and more fiercely to emotional stimuli and require
more time to calm down after an emotional reaction. This
was particularly evident in studies with adult borderline
patients [26-28]. Moreover, negative emotional reactions
in everyday life seem to be more easily triggered in those
The child or adolescent has experienced or witnessed
multiple or prolonged extremely stressful traumatic
events over a period of at least one year beginning in
childhood or early adolescence, including:
1) Direct experience or witnessing of repeated and
severe episodes of interpersonal violence, and
2) Significant disruptions of protective care giving as a
result of repeated changes in primary caregiver,
repeated separation from the primary caregiver, or
exposure to severe and persistent emotional abuse.
B. Affective and physiological dysregulation
The child exhibits impaired normative developmental
competencies related to arousal regulation, including at
least two of the following:
1) Inability to modulate, tolerate, or recover from
extreme affect states (e.g. fear, anger, shame),
including prolonged and extreme tantrums, or
2) Disturbances in regulation of bodily functions
(e.g. persistent disturbances in sleeping, eating, and
elimination; over-reactivity or under-reactivity to touch
and sounds; disorganization during routine transitions),
3) Diminished awareness/dissociation of sensations,
emotions, and bodily states, and/or
4) Impaired capacity to describe emotions or bodily
C. Attentional and behavioral dysregulation
The child exhibits impaired normative developmental
competencies related to sustained attention, learning, or
coping with stress, including at least three of the following:
1) Preoccupation with threat or impaired capacity to
perceive threat, including misreading of safety and
2) Impaired capacity for self-protection, including
extreme risk-taking or thrill-seeking,
3) Maladaptive attempts at self-soothing (e.g. rocking
and other rhythmical movements, compulsive
4) Habitual (intentional or automatic) or reactive self-
5) Inability to initiate or sustain goal-directed behavior.
D. Self and relational deregulation
The child exhibits impaired normative developmental
competencies in his/her sense of personal identity and
involvement in relationships, including at least three of
1) Intense preoccupation with safety of the caregiver or
other loved ones (including precocious care giving)
or difficulty tolerating reunion with them after
2) Persistent negative sense of self, including self-
loathing, helplessness, worthlessness, ineffectiveness,
3) Extreme and persistent distrust, defiance or lack of
reciprocal behavior in close relationships with adults
4) Reactive physical or verbal aggression toward peers,
caregivers, or other adults,
5) Inappropriate (excessive or promiscuous) attempts to
achieve intimate contact (including but not limited
to sexual or physical intimacy), or excessive reliance
on peers or adults for safety and reassurance, and/or
6) Impaired capacity to regulate empathic arousal as
evidenced by lack of empathy for, or intolerance of,
expressions of distress of others, or excessive
responsiveness to the distress of others.
E. Post-traumatic spectrum symptoms
The child exhibits at least one symptom in at least two
of the three PTSD symptom clusters B, C, and D.
Schmid et al. BMC Psychiatry 2013, 13:3
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F. Duration of disturbance
Persistence of symptoms in criteria B, C, D, and E for at
least 6 months.
G. Functional impairment
The disturbance causes clinically significant distress or
impairment in at least two of the following areas of
1) Scholastic: under-performance, non-attendance,
disciplinary problems, drop-out, failure to complete
degree/credential(s), conflict with school personnel,
learning disabilities, or intellectual impairment that
cannot be accounted for by neurological or other
2) Familial: conflict, avoidance/passivity, running away,
detachment and surrogate replacements, attempts to
physically or emotionally hurt family members, non-
fulfillment of responsibilities within the family,
3) Peer group: isolation, deviant affiliations, persistent
physical or emotional conflict, avoidance/passivity,
involvement in violence or unsafe acts, age-
inappropriate affiliations or style of interaction,
4) Legal: arrests/recidivism, detention, convictions,
incarceration, violation of probation or other court
orders, increasingly severe offenses, crimes against
other persons, disregard or contempt for the law or
for conventional moral standards, and/or
5) Health: physical illness or problems that cannot be
fully accounted for, physical injury or degeneration,
involving the digestive, neurological (including
conversion symptoms and analgesia), sexual,
immune, cardiopulmonary, proprioceptive, or
sensory systems, severe headache (including
migraine), or chronic pain or fatigue.
Dissociation may be described as a loss of outward
perception and trance-like state of mind, which is
accompanied by a loss of coenesthesia and sense of time,
spatial orientation, facial expression, perception of pain,
and often a feeling of derealization. Dissociative disrup-
tions may also involve the loss of memory of own and
observed external actions. As shown in recent experi-
ments , both learning and assimilation of new infor-
mation are strongly inhibited in dissociated states. Lynch
et al.  demonstrated that reducing dissociation ten-
dency improves the success of outpatient psychotherapy.
While approximately 10% of the general population
reacts with a stronger tendency to dissociation in response
to trauma, 50% of affected individuals may suffer from
chronic dissociation when faced with repeated trau-
matization [33,34]. Apart from the genetic disposition,
susceptibility of reacting to traumatic experiences with
dissociation is markedly influenced by the frequency and
nature of traumatic experiences. Furthermore, dissociation
tendency is a predictor for the development of PTSD in
response to traumatic experiences [35,36].
Maltreated or sexually abused schoolchildren have a
much stronger tendency towards dissociation than non-
maltreated children . Extreme familial psychosocial
stress and a tense family atmosphere are both factors
that appear to potentiate this tendency [38,39].
Somatization, body and sensory perception
Among chronically traumatized individuals, body percep-
tion is frequently impaired . Good body perception is
necessary for recognizing, processing, and expressing
emotions . In traumatized individuals, perception of
pain during tense conditions is diminished [42,43], and
auditory perception is impaired . Overall, body per-
ception, sensory perception, experience of pleasure, and
ability to focus on positive sensory perceptions such as
taste and music are clearly underdeveloped in affected
Studies show a clear relationship between early expe-
riences of neglect/malnutrition and somatic diseases
(e.g. high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, diabetes)
in adulthood . Furthermore, there is increasing evi-
dence that PTSD is not only associated with a higher
vulnerability for comorbid mental disorders but also with
an increased incidence of (psycho-) somatic disorders
[46,47]. Many traumatized children suffer from severe
sleep disorders [48,49].
Self-injury, high risk behavior, and sexual abnormalities
Non-suicidal self-injury  and suicidal behavior [51,52]
constitute the symptoms most strongly linked with
traumatization, particularly sexual abuse. More than 80%
of patients with a history of self-injury report traumatic
events in their earlier lives . Given the high prevalence
of self-injuries among adolescents, periodical and repeti-
tive self-injuring behavior should be regarded separately
since it is unlikely that the majority of adolescent self-
injurers share a history of traumatic events. Interestingly,
repetitive self-injury has been reported more often in
adults with a childhood history of sexual abuse, whereas
intermittent self-injury appears to be more frequently
associated with physical abuse in childhood . None-
theless, a meta-analysis of 45 studies on the association of
sexual abuse and self-injury only found a relatively weak
relationship between self-injury and sexual abuse indicat-
ing that sexual abuse ceased to explain the variance in
self-injurious behavior if the studies were controlled for
other psychiatric risk factors . Other studies described
a relationship between self-injury and traumatization
[55,56]. A recent review suggests that the association of
child maltreatment and self-injury varies according to the
type of maltreatment . Weierich and Nock showed
Schmid et al. BMC Psychiatry 2013, 13:3
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that PTSD symptoms mediate the relation between sexual
abuse and self-injury . Self-injury probably functions
as a support of emotion regulation and disrupts dissocia-
tive states and the emotional tension related to regulation
of emotion . Neurobiologically, self-injury can be seen
as an attempt to alter the state of the autonomic nervous
system that has been pushed to an extreme state by
reminders of traumatic events .
Glassman et al.  found that traumatization leads to
self-injury, particularly when shame and self-criticism
transform into self-hate. Among all psychological disor-
ders, post-traumatic syndromes are most closely related to
suicidal ideation and are associated with the highest
suicide rates. PTSD symptoms like flashbacks, nightmares
and intrusions were reported to be significantly associated
with tension, dissociation and self-injury [53,58]. The
literature concerning the association between a history of
traumatic events and suicidal behavior is particularly
consistent. Recent data from the World Mental Health
survey (21 countries, n=55’299) showed a strong relation-
ship between childhood adversities (odds ratio [OR] for
suicide attempt after sexual abuse: 5.7) and suicidal behav-
ior, such as suicidal ideation or attempts .
Children who have experienced sexual abuse seem to be
more preoccupied with their sexuality, show more sexua-
lized behavior, and may exhibit compulsive masturbating
behavior [61,62]. Several reviews suggest that impulsive
high-risk-behavior in adolescents (e.g. unprotected sexual
intercourse, risky behavior in traffic, carrying arms) often
occurs in young individuals who have been traumatized
. In particular, early substance abuse is likely alongside
impulsivity and psychosocial risk factors .
Difficulties with executive functions and the regulation
Studies in heavily deprived Romanian orphans showed
that without a minimum of stimulation during the sensi-
tive phase of development, cognitive development is
sustainably impaired [65-67]. Executive functions, such
as attention span, distractibility, and the ability for serial
structuring and making plans are particularly affected.
However, there is a clear distinction between these traits
and the symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity
disorder (ADHD) [67,68]. The work group around
Michael Rutter analyzed the intelligence profiles of trau-
matized and neglected Romanian residential care children
after adoption by families in the United Kingdom and
noticed that these children show deficits in their executive
functions [65,68]. On the neuropsychological level, self-
regulation of more complex behaviors and future orien-
tated planning in daily life appear to be limited or
impaired, because complex traumatized children have
learned to focus on the next moment to survive and not
to overlook broader timeframes [17,19]. Some studies
showed different significant problems in working memory
in students following sexual abuse and childhood trauma
[69,70]. Endo and colleagues  found that dissociative
children meet criteria of ADHD whereas non maltreated
children with ADHD do not show dissociative symptoms.
Difficulties in self-regulation and establishment of
Eighty percent of all traumatized (physically abused) chil-
dren show a disorganized style of attachment [72-74].
Abused and neglected children often develop highly inse-
cure representations of attachment [75,76] and show pro-
miscuous and non-selective behavior in their attachment
to adults [67,77]. Other studies found that exposure to
interpersonal trauma leeds to social isolation . Attach-
ment is an important resilience factor for preventing the
development of a mental disorder after traumatization.
Emotional support provided directly following a trauma-
tizing experience reduces the risk of developing PTSD
[35,36]. Moreover, positive relationships enhance the suc-
cess of psychosocial interventions .
Perception of social situations is altered in traumatized
children because they are highly sensitized to potentially
threatening stimuli. Dodge and Schwartz  showed that
traumatized children tend to interpret neutral behavior of
other people as hostile and react to more aggressive
behavior with fear or even dissociation. Furthermore,
abused children react stronger and more impulsive to
negative facial expressions, especially to those of anger
[23,81-83]. This hypersensitivity to potentially threatening
stimuli often leads to aggressive reactions in affected indi-
viduals [80,84,85]. Probably reduced grey matter in the
visual cortex represents a neurobiological correlate of
difficulties in the recognition and interpretation of emo-
tions and social skills .
Traumatized individuals often develop feelings of self-
reproach, guilt, and shame . Development of a
healthy self-image is substantially impaired in trauma-
tized subjects. The impact of abuse and neglect on the
development of self-esteem (self-insufficiency, defective-
ness) has been addressed in longitudinal studies [85,88].
Kim and Cicchetti reported that feelings of shame
caused by traumatization were responsible for interper-
sonal problems in adulthood .
Several studies have addressed empathy, theory of
mind, and the ability for mentalization in traumatized
and heavily neglected children [89,90]. The ability of tak-
ing the perspectives of others was diminished, increasing
with the length of the children being in conditions of
deprivation . When studying mentalization , the
ability to take the perspective of others in emotional
situations involving pressure was of main interest. Under
such circumstances, deficient regulation of emotion and
lacking ability to take others perspectives are additive.
Schmid et al. BMC Psychiatry 2013, 13:3
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Because of scientific discussion among the long term
consequences of childhood trauma and the criteria of
development trauma disorders a discussion among pros
and cons of the introduction of such a diagnosis in the
revision of DSM-V and ICD-11 started (see Table 1).
Arguments for and against a systematic diagnosis of DTD
Arguments in favor of formalized DTD diagnostic criteria
The following arguments support the initiative to in-
clude DTD as a distinct mental disorder in diagnostic
• More specific diagnosis: The diagnosis of PTSD does
not sufficiently take into account the symptoms of
traumatized patients. The postulated DTD diagnostic
criteria comprise a range of symptoms seen to occur
after complex and repeated traumatization. For the
diagnosis of DTD, traumatic experience is essential but
not exclusive, and genetic and biopsychosocial origins
of the disorder must be ruled out to specify the
interaction between neurobiology, epigenetics and
transgenerational traumatic life events and their
consequenses for the development of mental disorders.
The existence of specific and validated DTD diagnostic
criteria may sensitize professionals and the general
public to the drastic consequences of child abuse,
neglect, and traumatization. Moreover, the
establishment of measures for e.g. child protection,
policy making would be expedited.
• Course of mental disorders: The supporters of this
initiative argue that more emphasis should be placed
on developmental aspects of disorders caused by
traumatization. The few longitudinal studies available
indicate that more than 60% of adults with psychiatric
disorders suffered from psychopathological symptoms
during adolescence, and 77% exhibited symptoms
before the age of 18 years [87,92]. Furthermore, PTSD
frequently becomes chronic. In a longitudinal study in
adolescents with PTSD, 48% of patients still met the
criteria for PTSD three to four years later .
• Enhance research: Establishment of formal diagnostic
criteria for DTD is expected to stimulate research
efforts in this area (e.g., epidemiological studies,
developmental-psychopathological research). Cross-
sectional and longitudinal studies on psychosocial risks
and comorbidities during childhood and adolescence
should be encouraged.
• Explain comorbidities: From a clinical point of view,
the diagnosis of DTD focuses on traumatization as the
psychopathological trigger of mental disorders .
Several well-designed studies clearly demonstrated such
correlations. Post-traumatic symptoms may occur
together with other mental disorders. As many as 80%
of PTSD patients meet the criteria for another disorder
[95-98]. In an evaluation of the ‘Dunedin longitudinal
study’, Koenen et al.  showed that all subjects
meeting the criteria for PTSD in young adulthood had
suffered from mental disorders at a young age.
Conversely, other mental disorders may be present
before PTSD or may develop after its occurrence
[15,87,92]. In particular, victims of sequential
traumatization have an inherently high risk of
developing a complex syndrome of disorders that often
go hand-in-hand with single symptoms of PTSD
without fulfilling the complete clinical picture of PTSD
. In children and adolescents, comorbidities with
ADHD, anxiety disorder, suicidal thoughts, and a trend
towards affective disorders is highly prevalent [1,98].
• Enable effective treatment: By selectively treating
trauma symptoms, patients can be stabilized, and
concomitant illnesses (like anxiety disorder or
depression) can be addressed. The effectiveness of
therapeutic interventions in traumatized children and
adolescents has been well documented in recent years
[99-103]. Spinazzola et al.  pointed out that more
Table 1 Arguments for and against the introduction of development trauma disorder in the psychiatric diagnostic systems
Arguments: pro development trauma disorderArguments against development trauma disorder
Specific diagnosis for observed symptoms from severely
Conflicts the traditional diagnostic systems on constraining on the
description of symptoms
Regards developmental psychopathology and the course
of mental disorders
Assumed mono-causality is conflicting bio-psycho-social model of the
etiology of mental disorders
Explains co-morbidityUnderestimates the aspects of inverse correlations of psychopathology
Enables effective treatment for co-morbid disordersSelectivity underestimates the role of resilience
Enhances research in the field of developmental psychopathology
and trauma related disorders
Higher risk to miss co-morbid disorders and effective (psycho-)
Show scientific based arguments for a improvement of child
protection, prevention and resources of youth welfare services
Failed to define age-related symptoms
Explains severe problem behavior, for example reactive aggression,
chronic dissociation and self-injury
Trauma focused explorations might lead to a problem focused
Schmid et al. BMC Psychiatry 2013, 13:3
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attention should be given to naturalistic studies in
inpatients suffering from psychosocial stress being at
risk of suicide.
Patients with severe interpersonal traumatization in
childhood are the hardest to treat and have the poorest
prognosis. Treatment may be constrained by
insufficient understanding of the underlying illness, and
patients often cannot be reached by the psychosocial
care system. Moreover, the degree of traumatization
affects treatment success. Therefore, it is important to
take the nature and severity of traumatic experiences
into account when developing a treatment plan. With a
more specific diagnosis, treatment options can be
• Social and legal aspects: Many victims of neglect,
child abuse, and maltreatment live on the edge of
society and depend on social services for most of their
lives. Failures at school and in youth welfare
institutions are common . Clear definition of
trauma-related symptoms could help to change
attitudes towards delinquent or aggressive adolescents
and facilitate the initiation of treatment .
Several studies have addressed the enormous
healthcare costs arising from traumatization, such as
medical treatment costs, early retirement, inability to
work, need for social benefits, and even imprisonment
[107,108]. If the consequences of childhood
traumatization were officially recognized, patients
would benefit from improved social acceptance of their
difficulties. Moreover, inclusion of mental disorders
arising from complex traumatization in the official
diagnostic systems would assist patients in obtaining
compensation and legal support (court, victim aid).
Many traumatized patients develop chronic mental
disorders with serious impairment of their working
ability and social interactions. Early and effective
intervention is necessary to help patients to maintain a
normal life style.
Arguments against formalized DTD diagnostic criteria
The following arguments question the usefulness of in-
cluding DTD as a distinct mental disorder in diagnostic
• Conflicting DSM and ICD diagnostic systems: Formal
DTD diagnostic criteria are thought to weaken the
power of existing diagnostic systems, such as DSM-IV-
TR and ICD-10. Both diagnostic systems were strictly
designed to exclude any theory about the etiology of
the mental disorders and confine themselves to a clear
and operationalizable description of the symptoms and
disorders. Since Axis V of the multiaxial diagnostic
system covers psychosocial risk factors, aspects
associated with chronic exposures to traumatic events
are included in existing systems. In addition, critics
claim that there is no clear distinction between
symptoms and syndromes, and that DTD criteria
overlap with those of some established and some
discussed diagnoses. Many symptoms of borderline
personality disorder or attachment disorder are
included in the list of DTD symptoms, thus impeding
the distinction between these disorders. Similarly, DTD
criteria overlap with those of attachment disorders,
conduct disorder, multiple complex development
disorders (MCDD)  or the criteria for borderline
disorder in childhood and adolescence . Although,
all of these diagnosis have a high prevalence among
people with traumatic life events, problems with
validity and reliability [110,111] and high comorbidities
with other mental disorders. Some diagnosis like
multiple complex trauma disorder and borderline
personality disorder in childhood are not part of the
• Monocausality: concerning the diagnosis of DTD,
monocausality is assumed, but this has not been proven
. DTD diagnosis favors a psychosocial explanation
for the etiology of the disorders and neglects the
biological explanations of the biopsychosocial model to
understand the development of mental disorders. DTD
is frequently manifested as a mixture of symptoms and
syndromes, and a unidirectional relationship between
traumatic experiences and the development of a
confined syndrome remains is based on a widespread of
actual research in the field of psycho traumatology.
Moreover, genetic/biological causes of the symptom
pattern may be ignored when diagnosing DTD. Critics
of a formal DTD diagnosis point out that those similar
symptoms may be present in individuals who did not
have any traumatic experiences. In line with this, 20%
to 30% of patients with borderline personality disorder,
whose criteria are similar to those of complex PTSD,
had not suffered from any traumatic experience .
By explaining complex symptom patterns by a single
cause, other disorders that require treatment may
remain untreated. Focussing on trauma etiology it
might be possible that other comorbid diagnosis like
ADHD will not be taken into account and missed to
treat with evidenced based interventions. Furthermore,
assumption of traumatization as the single cause of the
disorder may result in too much importance being
attached to identifying the causative traumatic
experience, thus ignoring positive life experiences that
would facilitate a resource-orientated therapeutic
relationship, especially with the parents.
• Selectivity: Certain children who had been severely
traumatized do not develop any mental disorder .
Of course this is a weak argument because skeptics can
argue in the same way against the classic PTSD diagnosis.
Schmid et al. BMC Psychiatry 2013, 13:3
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According to Malinosky-Rummell and Hansen, 80% of
adults who had been physically abused during childhood
showed no mental disorder in adulthood . However,
Collishaw et al.  found considerably weaker
psychopathological resilience in a follow-up analysis of
adults who had experienced maltreatment during
childhood. Furthermore a study of the Dunedin birth
cohort (in ) suggested that the risk of developing a
mental disorder increases with repeated traumatization.
Individuals who did not develop any symptoms were
found to have good peer relations, success at school and
work, and stable relationships. Current research into
resilience increasingly focuses on dynamic factors, such as
behavior and attitude, which enhance individual or
familial resilience , and their correlation with genetic
factors. Conversely, non-traumatized individuals may
develop similar symptoms. The formal DTD criteria do
not explain this phenomenon. In addition, there is a
relatively high overlap with existing and well-established
mental disorders (e.g., borderline disorder, attachment
disorder with disinhibition, etc.).
• Inverse correlation: Diagnosing DTD implies that
emotional dysregulation is caused by traumatic
experiences but ignores the fact that the reverse
relationship also exists. Emotional dysregulation is
accompanied by a higher risk of traumatization. It is
well established that subjects with impaired emotional
control may adversely respond to environmental
factors, thus reinforcing the present symptoms .
This correlation was described in the transactional
model by Fruzzetti et al. . Furthermore, children
with externalizing disorders have a four times higher
risk of being abused .
• Age sensitivity: Although the proposed diagnostic
criteria are meant to take the age and developmental
status of the patient into account, symptoms are not
sufficiently stipulated age-sensitive. But of course this is
a problem of every diagnosis in childhood and
adolescence – regarding the actual debate among
assessing symptoms of attention deficit and
hyperactivity disorder ADHD in childhood, adolescence
and adulthood . Furthermore the criteria claim to
be development-oriented, however they fail to specify
the symptoms for different age groups. Thus, no
distinction is being made between young children and
adolescents with respect to emotional and physiological
regulation. This is due to the limited knowledge about
the course of trauma-related symptoms and the
methodical problems in longitudinal studies to address
the same construct in different age groups with other
psychometric methods. Additionally clinical studies are
limited by ethical restraints.
• Treatment: The main purpose of accurately
diagnosing psychopathological conditions in children
and adolescence is the endeavor to treat them
effectively. Critics of the introduction of formal DTD
diagnostic criteria argue that comorbidities may remain
untreated because too much emphasis is placed on
trauma-related aspects of the condition. This can
provoke misinterpretations of biological symptoms with
the consequence that effective psycho-pharmaceutical
treatment options stay unused.
• Disadvantages of trauma-focused diagnostic
explorations: For inexperienced professionals the
concentration on trauma-related symptoms in the
diagnostic process may result in a pressure to detect
traumatic life events. This kind of exploration might
have a negative influence on the therapeutic
relationship, especially to parents of multi-problem
families. It can be difficult to combine a trauma-
focused exploration style with solution focused
interventions. But without the development of a
sustainable therapeutic relationship every treatment
will fail. Another negative aspect of trauma-focused
diagnostic exploration could be that patients will be
pushed in an implicit or explicit way to remember or to
talk about traumatic events. It is even possible that
some trauma-focused exploration styles provoke false
memories of biographical life events with several
negative consequences .
There is considerable controversy with respect to imple-
menting formal DTD diagnostic criteria; based on exist-
ing empirical studies the correlation between traumatic
experiences and related symptoms is not in question
among experts. Studies focusing on the neurobiology of
mental disorder in childhood have clearly identified
traumatization as an important cause .
The current debate on the need for a formal definition
of DTD criteria highlights the important role of trau-
matization and neglect in the development of complex
psychopathological disorders that are difficult to treat.
Awareness of long-term outcomes of child abuse and
neglect may strengthen the acceptance of initiatives to
protect children from maltreatment and improve atti-
tudes towards ‘difficult’ adolescents who live at the edge
of society. A better understanding of the effects of
traumatization might lead to improved psychosocial
treatment options for these children and adolescents
and may help to prevent from participation restrictions
in the society.
The arguments for and against implementing formal
DTD diagnostic criteria are convincing, and the debate
can only be resolved conclusively based on the emergence
of new information. Sophisticated neurobiological and
genetic studies are needed because traumatization is
known to affect prenatal factors, such as endocrinological
Schmid et al. BMC Psychiatry 2013, 13:3
Page 8 of 12
processes during and after pregnancy, or even genotype
[121-124]. Moreover, longitudinal studies are necessary
because DTD is not a static but a rather dynamic condi-
tion, undergoing changes in its manifestation over time.
An innovative method using a developmental-heterotopic
approach has been described by Fegert et al. and Schmid
et al. [4,125,126].
In addition, clusters of mental disorders should be
identified, and interaction of psychosocial and biological
aspects in the development of these clusters should be
addressed. Such an approach would help to explain the
pervasive nature of trauma-related psychopathological
Trauma experts working in specialized institutions that
deal exclusively with traumatized individuals tend to be
the main supporters of a formal definition of DTD diag-
nostic criteria, while professionals working in the general
clinical and psychiatric setting remain critical for the
reasons stipulated above. Regardless of the outcome of the
ongoing debate, treatment of severely traumatized chil-
dren and adolescents should be improved substantially.
Although trauma outpatient clinics offering symptom-
specific treatment will be of help, general psychothera-
peutic professionals also need to be trained in this area
since many traumatized children are encountered in the
clinical setting. Therapeutic concepts currently available
for hospitalized patients are grossly inadequate to address
the dramatic squeal in severely traumatized children.
Trauma-specific concepts of outpatient treatment with
possible inpatient interval treatment should be developed
and implemented [101,127-129], taking the specific needs
of children and adolescents into account as well as the
need of their parents, foster parents or residential care
staff. It is important to be able to combine both treatment
needs: to maintain a “save place” and to have the possibil-
ity to do effective (prolonged) exposure therapy. For se-
verely traumatized patients a combination of a skill
training and trauma therapeutic exposure treatment is
currently regarded to be the best approach [101,103] with
the least drop-out rates. The trauma system therapy as a
model of combined milieu therapeutic, systemic / family
centered and psychotherapeutic intervention is a very
promising and, as the first results show, successful treat-
ment approach for children and adolescents suffering
from complex trauma or developmental trauma disorder
. The psychotherapeutic skill training focuses on the
capacities to cope with dissociation, emotion regulation
problems, situations of extreme stress and tension as well
as intrusions, disgust and social problems [101,103,127].
The additive skill training will help to overcome tension
and dissociation during the exposure therapy and is a kind
of precondition for exposure therapy with complex trau-
matized patients with fewer capacities to cope with stress,
tension and dissociation . The dialectical behavior
therapy and their adaptions for adolescents [132,133] are
the best evaluated treatment concepts to improve these
skills. For such treatment concepts to be effective, specia-
lized wards are needed, which will probably require in-
patient treatment for a greater catchment area and build a
network of outpatient therapists cooperating with this
As many severely traumatized children and adoles-
cents cannot stay in their families of origin, psychiatric
liaison services for adolescents in residential care institu-
tions and youth welfare services should be implemented.
These liaison services can help to reach more burdened
children, reduce inpatient child- and adolescent psychi-
atric treatment days and improve continuity in residen-
tial and foster care placements . Youth welfare
concepts should be sensitized to trauma symptoms and
try to promote and enhance resilience factors, self-
efficacy and social and emotion-regulation skills 106]. In
conclusion, the available arguments for and against the
implementation formal diagnostic criteria for DTD
cannot be appraised conclusively based on current
research. The main advantage appears to be improved
sensitization to trauma outcomes and more tailor-made
treatment options, but this may also be achieved by a
descriptive approach. A dimensional diagnostic system
comprising the relevant domains, such as relationship /
attachment representation, assessing interpersonal trust,
emotion regulation, affinity to dissociation / sensual per-
ception, and lacking expectation of self-efficacy, could
also be envisaged. Specific symptom scales for emotion
regulation, attachment/ interpersonal trust, self-efficacy
and dissociation may be effective in predicting the out-
come of psychotherapeutic treatment. These symptom
scales may show relevant aspects of developmental psy-
chopathology, can support the diagnostic process, and
help to develop individualized treatment concepts with
specific guidelines for the arrangement of the thera-
peutic alliance. Probably the sensitization to trauma
symptoms and the interpersonal learning history of a
patient can prevent drop-out and improve the thera-
The authors declare that they have no competing interests.
JMF and FP contributed equally to this work. This paper is based on a former
German publication by MS, JMF, FP. (2010) Traumaentwicklungsstörung: Pro
und Contra. Kindheit & Entwicklung, 19 (1), 47–63. All authors read and
approved the final manuscript.
Dr. Marc Schmid is chief psychologist at the department of child and
adolescent psychiatry at the University Basel (Switzerland). Head of the
center for the psychiatric and psychotherapeutic liaison services with youth
welfare institutions and the EQUALS project.
Schmid et al. BMC Psychiatry 2013, 13:3
Page 9 of 12
Prof. Dr. Franz Petermann is Director of the center of rehabilitation and
clinical psychology and professor for psychological diagnostics and
intervention at the University Bremen (Germany).
Prof. Dr. Jörg M. Fegert is Medical Director of the department for child and
adolescent psychiatry at the University of Ulm (Germany). Professor Fegert is
member of diverse academic advisory boards of the German government
among family affairs, research, child abuse and neglect.
1Department of child and adolescent psychiatry University Basel,
Schanzenstrasse 13, CH-4056, Basel, Switzerland.2Center of clinical
psychology and rehabilitation University Bremen, Grazer Strasse 6, DE-28329,
Bremen, Germany.3Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and
Psychotherapy, University of Ulm, Steinhövelstrasse 5, DE-89075, Ulm,
Received: 4 January 2012 Accepted: 29 November 2012
Published: 3 January 2013
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Cite this article as: Schmid et al.: Developmental trauma disorder: pros
and cons of including formal criteria in the psychiatric diagnostic
systems. BMC Psychiatry 2013 13:3.
Schmid et al. BMC Psychiatry 2013, 13:3
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