Dissociative identity disorder (DID) is a condition that develops in early childhood, primarily caused by repeated and severe trauma.
Current research and theories share that DID can only form before age 6, or later in some people with developmental disorders/neurodivergencies. This is because the process of dissociative compartmentalization must happen before a unified sense of self forms.
This blog is an overview of typical childhood development, then a description of how dissociative identity disorder develops from trauma.
Typical childhood development (one unified self)
In a child without DID, their identity forms as one singular self by around the age of 5 or 6. They understand they are an individual person, separate from the world around them. They will still go on to learn more about who they are, but they have a sense of “I am X.”
This is natural childhood development. They slowly learn the difference between themselves and the world by interacting with it. As a part of this process, they develop a “Remembered Self” (an autobiographical collection of memories). This whole identity is also sometimes referred to as an “apparently normal part” (ANP).
Before this, the child doesn’t have an integrated sense of self (based on the Theory of Structural Dissociation). Before they develop this, they are still learning the difference between “me” and “something else.” They are still learning about emotions, personality traits, and identity components.
How dissociative identity disorder develops
If chronic and severe trauma occurs during these early developmental years, this process can be interrupted. For a child to cope with their trauma, certain memories are compartmentalized by the brain.
It can be visualized like multiple containers of memories and experiences. Some of these compartments will hold traumatic memories, some of these might be “the good child who is fine” and some may have other roles.
Yet, during this compartmentalization, childhood development continues. But instead of one unified self forming, each of these compartments begins to develop a unique sense of self. Each compartment forms their own Remembered Self, as each part has their own subjective narrative experiences.
Basically, dissociation separates this child’s experiences so strongly that trauma may be recalled by one part, but not by another. This drastic compartmentalization means each part develops their own autobiographical narrative (Remembered Self) differently. This leads to the development of multiple senses of self (ANPs), leading to dissociative identity disorder or OSDD1.
Since this process happens in early childhood, dissociative identity disorder is not believed to be able to form in adolescence or adulthood.
Diagram: Dissociative Identity Disorder Development
This image creates a visualization between typical non-traumatic childhood development and a child who develops dissociative identity disorder.
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Hart, O., Nijenhuis, E. R. S., & Steele, K. (2006). The haunted self: Structural dissociation and the treatment of chronic traumatization. New York: W.W. Norton