Relational trauma refers to a pattern of abuse or neglect, typically perpetrated by someone looked to for love, trust, or to feel safe with, such as a parent or caregiver.
It’s also known as attachment trauma or complex trauma.
It implies a disruption in a relationship early in life that impacts relationships later in life, including the relationship with self as well as with others.
Relational trauma interferes with a person's sense of safety, trust, and the ability to form healthy, secure attachments with others.
Causes of Relational Trauma
- Emotional neglect and abuse
- Narcissist or emotionally immature parenting or caregiving
- Inappropriate sexual behaviors or exploitation
- Physical harm or violence
- Death of a parent or caregiver
- Divorce resulting in the lack of physical presence of a parent or caregiver
- Something else dominating the caregiver’s attention such as work or the physical or mental health needs of another family member
- Active substance use by a caregiver impacting their ability to be both physically and emotionally present for the child
Enmeshment can take the form of:
- The child becoming responsible for the emotions of the adult, either because of the adult’s expectations or the child’s desire to caretake the adult
- Over-involvement by a parent or caregiver in the child’s life
It’s important to note that relational trauma can be unintentional on the part of the parent or caregiver. It can reflect intergenerational patterns, with the parent or caregiver often having experienced relational trauma in their own childhood.
Impact of Relational Trauma
Individuals who’ve experienced relational trauma may struggle with trusting others in addition to struggling with setting and maintaining healthy boundaries. Boundaries may tend to be too rigid or too loose.
At the individual level, those who’ve experienced relational trauma may struggle with self-esteem throughout their life. This can appear in the person feeling unlovable or unworthy.
Relational trauma can also result in social isolation and avoidance or in chronic feelings of loneliness. With chronic feelings of loneliness, the individual may feel alone even when in a relationship or in a social setting.
Relational trauma is associated with depression and anxiety, substance use, nonsuicidal self-injury (NSSI), and suicidal ideation. The individual may engage in some of these behaviors in an attempt to cope with the pain of the relational trauma.
An individual who has experienced relational trauma may struggle with emotion regulation as well as with dissociation. Emotional dysregulation can present as anger or reactivity to various triggers.
Relational trauma impacts physical health as well as mental health.
Some common physical health symptoms reported by those who’ve experienced relational trauma include:
- Digestive issues
- Chronic pain
- Difficulty sleeping
- Chronic fatigue or exhaustion
It should also be noted that individuals who’ve experienced relational trauma are at risk for additional trauma later in life. This is in part due to a tendency to recreate past trauma in the present. Individuals who have experienced relational trauma may be seen as “self-sabotaging” or as “self-destructive” throughout their life.
Healing From Relational Trauma
Psychotherapy is one option for the treatment of relational trauma. The individual may work with a licensed therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist to address the impact of relational trauma.
Some forms of therapy that may be helpful include dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) or somatic-based therapies.
Read this post for more information on therapy for trauma survivors.
Self-help tools can be an important part of healing from relational trauma.
Self-help can include:
- Yoga or other forms of movement
- Mindfulness and meditation
- Engaging in creativity such as through art or music
Addressing relational trauma is important because many adults may not realize the connection between symptoms they experience and their childhood experiences.
Individuals who’ve experienced relational trauma are not expected to heal alone – having healthy relationships is a vital part of feeling better.
Healthy relationship experiences can occur with friends, family, within peer-led support groups, or with healthcare professionals.
Relational trauma refers to the negative psychological and emotional impact that arises from difficult or harmful experiences within interpersonal relationships, particularly during early developmental stages.
Relational trauma can have far-reaching effects on a person’s wellbeing, including:
- Difficulty forming and maintaining healthy relationships
- Emotional dysregulation
- Low self-esteem
- Emotional numbness
- Physical symptoms such as: digestive issues, chronic pain, headaches and fatigue
- A pattern of seeking out abusive relationships
Want to understand more about trauma? Be sure to download our free eBook Understanding and Healing Trauma using the form below.
About AmandaAmanda is a an LPC-S in Texas and has been practicing since 2013.
Amanda specializes in working with trauma, including acute, chronic, and complex, as well as anxiety and eating disorders and provides therapy to adult individuals in-person in Dallas and online throughout the state of Texas.
Amanda is a Co-Founder of Crescent Counseling.