04 Jun Relational Trauma: what is it?
The word trauma is now a common term to describe adverse events that are frightening or overwhelming. Relational trauma is more complex and damaging. What happens when the person who is meant to be your protector and keep you safe also becomes the source of threat or appears frightened and weak in the face of threat?
As Psychologist we commonly talk about relational trauma and its impact on all aspects of the person including physiological, emotional, interpersonal and behavioural. Relational trauma inherently comes from our very early relationships and the repeated failures of our caregivers to meet our needs. These needs might be physical safety, connection, comfort, independence and emotional expression. It is often marked by repeated violation of boundaries and betrayal of the parent-child relationship. This might be from repeated abuse, domestic violence, neglect but also commonly occurs from an emotionally immature parent who frequently uses their child as a confidante, thereby placing that child in a pseudo parenting role. While on the outside this may seem less traumatic than systematic abuse; but it still leaves a legacy of relational trauma. A child’s emotional expression is often thwarted and their ability to reflect and explore their own emotional world is sacrificed through trying to meet the emotional needs of their parents. When a child must sacrifice their own emotional needs including (connection, safety, trust, comfort, acknowledgement) they tend to cope by internalizing and avoiding emotions. As adults they may experience feelings of disconnection and emptiness and develop strategies to avoid unsafe feelings (eating issues, substance abuse, self-harm, dissociation). This can be very detrimental to the adult, as feelings provide us with rich information that direct our decision making, improve our coping strategies, increase self-reflection and build future relationship skills. Talking therapy can serve as a safe place to reflect on these experiences and develop helpful emotional language and regulation skills that were not offered or role modelled to the child.