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What Is Relational Trauma?

Embark Behavioral Health
November 4, 2021

We know about “trauma” in general, but there are varying types that are worth learning more about. One type of trauma is relational trauma, which is trauma that develops between two or more people that are in close connection with each other. Brandon Holt, a therapist at Embark at The Forge, added:

“Relational trauma encompasses decreasing feelings of safety or security with another person, many times resulting in feelings of helplessness.”

Examples of events that can cause relational trauma include:

  • Sexual abuse
  • Emotional abuse
  • Domestic violence
  • Maltreatment
  • Substance abuse
  • Negative childhood experiences within a relationship
  • Other traumatic events that occur with a relationship

Because it significantly affects relationships and can cause feelings of openness or support to deteriorate, it’s important to address relational trauma.

Why Does Relational Trauma Happen?

There are certain things that one comes to expect and needs in a healthy relationship with a loved one. We need security and attunement when we’re connected with someone else and sharing our inner world with them. When we don’t feel safe and secure with someone because of negative, harmful behaviors, that’s when relational trauma can occur.

Relational Trauma Passing Between Generations

Relational trauma can easily be passed down from generations. Holt expanded:

“When a person grows up, they often try to compensate for what was lacking or what went wrong in their childhood. Sometimes this results in overcompensation, or unintentionally continuing the cycle by modeling what their own parents did.”

If someone follows what they know, they’ll recreate the dynamic between them and their parents with their own children. Overcorrecting, or creating a dynamic that’s opposite what parents experienced, can also cause issues. Holt explained:

“Sometimes if you try to overcorrect without a good model, a person may do the best they can, but you may do a little damage in another direction. Decisions based on fear usually results in dysfunction.”

Effects of Relational Trauma

Young people can get their idea of who they are from their relationship with their parents or caregivers. “If we’re attuned to them, and we understand them and their needs, their sense of identity can really flourish,” Holt said.

If we’re missing that sense of security, attunement, and support, relational trauma can occur. When it does, a child can develop a negative message internally about themselves. Holt offered an example of a very difficult divorce:

“Children sometimes internalize messages and may feel like they are the reason that their parents divorced. They may carry the internal belief that ‘I’m bad’ or ‘Something is wrong with me.’”

Relational trauma can actually become an experience of invalidation, which negatively impacts identity, self-worth, and self-efficacy.

Breaking the Cycle of Relational Trauma

In order to break the cycle, you need to recognize that relational trauma is present. Holt added:

“My parenting is impacted by my own childhood, the modeling that my parents provided, and the personalities of myself and my spouse. I have to be very honest with myself when I am struggling to attune to my children because the problem is usually within myself, not with my children.”

The takeaway here is that parenting is a very reflective process where you have to be really honest with yourself and consider why you’re taking the approach you’re taking.

The cycle can also be broken by the child. Holt explained:

“It is always helpful for the kids that we work with to develop empathy for their parents. Parents may have experienced their own relational trauma or poor modeling that has been transmitted from one generation to another. It helps the kids to externalize the problem, challenge their own negative beliefs about their identity and be more willing to engage with parents on fixing the relationship.”

However, if you, as a parent, recognize that some of your behaviors stem from relational trauma, Holt said to recognize this as you address it with your child or children. It’s critical to have that vulnerable communication across generations. He said:

“Parents need to have insight into their own patterns that are rooted in past relational trauma, and take responsibility for interrupting the cycle of dysfunction.”

Let your teen know that you recognize a behavior is negative, and that you want to stop engaging in that pattern and that you’re going to work on ceasing it because you care about their well-being.

Clinicians will tell you that this also models a way to learn and grow for kids and young people, so when they’re parents themselves, they will also take the opportunities to improve themselves and stop bad patterns. “All around, it’s really healthy to be able to have those discussions,” Holt said.

Why Relationships Affect Our Mental Health

Holt pointed out that more and more studies are showing that our brains and nervous systems are hardwired to be connected to other people in relationships.

He also mentioned that there are several studies that show we feel less physical pain if we experience it when we’re in close proximity to somebody that we love. Studies, such as this one in Plos Medicine, also show that we live longer and tend to be healthier if we have a connection with and healthy relationships with other people.

The CASA Model
With a goal of facilitating attachment and healthy relationships, the CASA model is defined by a focus on the following:

  1. Commitment. You’re committed and in a close relationship with somebody where you help someone through the process of growth and improvement with support and connection.
  2. Acceptance. In practicing this, you accept that it may be someone’s worst moment, but they may be doing their very best in that moment. Through the good and the bad, you accept them for who they are. You may not always like their behavior, but you most likely can accept them as a person.
  3. Security. Safety is key to a healthy relationship and combating relational trauma. Security or safety has to be present to have healthy attachment, as it allows both parties to open up and share.
  4. Attunement. This process, summed up, is about being dialed into the needs of your family member and understanding their frame of mind.

CASA is a cycle, and your teen may move through it as they experience or re-experience aspects of their traumatic history.

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Embark Behavioral Health

Embark Behavioral Health is a leading network of clinics and programs offering premier mental health treatment for adolescents and young adults. Dedicated to its mission of reversing the trends of adolescent and young adult anxiety, depression, and suicide by 2028, Embark is unlike any other behavioral health organization in the United States. Embark offers a full continuum and spectrum of services, a unique 25-years of specialization, a deep legacy of serving youth, and a set of internationally validated outcomes that drive treatment in real-time. For more information about Embark or its treatment programs, including wilderness therapy, long-term residential treatment centers, short-term residential treatment centers, day treatment, partial hospitalization (PHP) programs, intensive outpatient programs (IOP), outpatient, and virtual counseling.