social anxiety

What is Relational Trauma?

A lot of people think of trauma as belonging to survivors of war, car accidents, crime, or natural disasters.  While this is certainly true, there is a more subtle type of trauma that has likely visited and impacted many more people – relational trauma.  In this case, the trauma occurs within a relationship that is needed by the victim.  Children need their parents.  However, a child can be relationally traumatized when the very same people he depends upon to survive are the people who make him feel unsafe or deprived.  The child is forced to solve this dilemma usually by denying the reality of his trauma in favor of preserving the relationship to the parents.

When a parent is traumatizing a child, it is implicit that the child not speak – or know – that he is being victimized.

Relational trauma can look like

sins of commission, for example:

  • A child’s terror at the emotionally violent outbursts of his volatile father
  • A child’s humiliation at his mother’s perception that his healthy needs for autonomy are selfish
  • A child’s flattened sense of self from chronic verbal criticism by a parent

and/or omission, for example:

  • A child’s sense of agony at his mother’s lack of interest in his inner world
  • A child’s deflated experience of her depressed parent’s chronic inability to experience joy at her accomplishments

When a parent is traumatizing a child, it is implicit that the child not speak – or know – that he is being victimized.  The child needs the relationship with the parent to stay intact.  So, where does the trauma go?  Usually into the child’s experience of himself – all of the hostility experienced at the hands of the parents is swallowed whole-hog as the child reasons that:

  • I wouldn’t be ignored if I were not so uninteresting
  • I wouldn’t get yelled at if I were not so selfish and mean
  • My needs for care are too much for others
  • I could expect more approval if I just do X better

The child protects the relationship with the parent by agreeing with that parent’s attitude towards him and joining in the attack against himself.  This leads to a ravaged sense of self-esteem but the primary problem of preserving the tie to the parent is resolved.

The very thing that lets people move past trauma? TALKING ABOUT IT.

What makes relational trauma so insidious is that there is usually no way to do the very thing that lets people move past trauma: talk about it. When a natural disaster occurs, it is the shared story-telling of the horrors endured that allow victims to begin to restore a sense of predictability and safety to their inner worlds. Victims of relational trauma in childhood usually did not have the opportunity to acknowledge and talk about what was happening to them because that would threaten the connection to the parent. As they move into adulthood and try to establish relationships with others, they are back in the cauldron of trauma – it is their needs for connections with others that brought about their trauma. It is like a Vietnam veteran traumatized by an ambush while on patrol, being forced to patrol that same patch of land for the rest of his days. Since we all need relationships to have any hope of feeling like life is meaningful, there is nowhere to hide for the victim of relational trauma – the well of human connection has been poisoned but it still must be sipped from.

So, what can be done for the relationally traumatized individual?

Psychotherapy for relational trauma seeks to restore the process that typically allows the impact of trauma to subside – identifying and talking about it within the context of a supportive and safe relationship.
The relationally traumatized client usually will expect to be mistreated by the therapist – how could they not? – and it is the therapist’s job to understand these expectations from within the client’s perspective.


Contact me to restore your sense of predictability and safety in life.

Jay Reid is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC).

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  1. Pingback: What is trauma? | Pearltrees

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