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What are signs of early trauma?

Sherrie Segovia, PsyD

November 1, 2023

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Question

What are signs of early trauma?

Answer

Signs of early trauma can arise soon after birth or even from prenatal experiences like a mother enduring violence during pregnancy. Unpredictable, unresponsive, or harmful caregiving environments commonly lead to certain indicators in infants and toddlers:

  • Difficulty forming attachments with caregivers, or conversely, indiscriminate attachment to anyone
  • Excessive fear around strangers or separation anxiety
  • Trouble with eating and sleeping routines
  • Fussiness and difficulty soothing
  • Regression in skills after hitting developmental milestones
  • Hypervigilance or fear around any new stimuli

I unfortunately saw many pregnant women experience violence, often resulting in preterm delivery and an anxious, distressed baby. Early trauma exposure literally shapes the developing nervous system, leading to a hair-trigger stress response. Challenges with attachment, fear, and regulation arise as coping adaptations to instability and danger.

Signs tend to involve struggles with relating, managing emotions, and meeting basic needs. Careful observation helps identify trauma impacts as early as possible. A caring, consistent environment with nurturing relationships and professional support can help build resilience and new pathways for security and regulation. Early intervention makes a profound difference in healing trauma.

This Ask the Expert is an edited excerpt from the course Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health is Everybody’s Businesspresented by Sherrie Segovia, PsyD.


sherrie segovia

Sherrie Segovia, PsyD

Dr. Segovia received her undergraduate and graduate degrees in Psychology and was principally affiliated with community-based mental health and social service organizations. For over 40 years, Dr. Segovia primarily worked with marginalized African American and Latino children and their families in clinic, school, and home settings.

She has functioned as a counselor, family and child advocate, parent educator, and foster care training specialist. As the Clinical Manager at Hope Street Family Center for over 25 years, Dr. Segovia worked within a multi-disciplinary team to access, coordinate, and provide families with appropriate services. She provided clinical and administrative support and reflective supervision to Early Head Start professional case managers, as well as assessment, crisis intervention, and ongoing therapy for families and children.

Dr. Segovia was a frequent presenter at national, state, and regional conferences. She also co-wrote an article on infant mental health for Zero To Three and other publications. Dr. Segovia has also been an expert speaker on Channel 22 Telemundo and Channel 34 Univision as well as radio stations. In December 2003, she completed her Doctorate in Psychology and a dissertation with a focus on domestic violence and its impact on early language development.

Since 2004, Dr. Segovia served as a lead faculty for undergraduate and graduate courses in human services, psychology, and counseling in the college of social and behavioral sciences at the University of Phoenix. Additionally, Dr. Segovia facilitated a course on Parenting in High-Risk Families in the Child and Family Studies Department at California State University in Los Angeles.  She was also affiliated with the Latino Technical Assistance & Training Division of the California Hispanic Commission as an educational consultant. She served as a member of the board of directors for the California Head Start Association. Dr. Segovia’s specific areas of expertise include parental depression and anxiety, substance abuse, cultural competence, communication skills, parenting, and partnerships. Bilingual and bicultural herself, Dr. Segovia has a particular interest in culturally responsive service delivery.  


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