• Dayna Sharp, LCSW

Relational Trauma

Updated: Jun 19, 2019



Humans are social beings. We thrive together. It's the way we're built. Each one of us is born to depend on our caregivers to meet our basic needs and to provide love and comfort. A baby's smile is nature's way of drawing caregivers to engage with us. We learn about ourselves and our world through a supportive relationship with our family. When adults emotionally connect with babies and children--when they recognize their child's feelings and needs and respond to them, children grow up feeling connected and secure. See my post Parenting: Fostering a Circle of Security.


 

We experience "relational trauma" when our parents or caregivers, for whatever reason, aren't able to connect with us. When our family can't be attuned to our feelings and needs, even as infants, we develop strategies to cope.


Of course, no caregiver can be attentive and responsive 100% of the time, nor should they be! But when caregivers aren't available emotionally in an ongoing way, for example if a parent struggles with chronic depression or mental health issues, if a caregiver is overwhelmed themselves by the infant/child's emotions, if there is substance abuse involved, infants may not get the emotional support that they need to recognize their feelings, experience them as temporary, and return to balance. And so the strategies they use to cope become encoded as a "working model of relationships" that they are likely to carry even into their adult relationships.


To get a better sense of what this looks like, check out The Still Face Experiment.


In this film, you can initially see the mother and baby interacting together. Baby smiles, mother smiles. Baby points, mother looks. But when the mother enacts the "Still Face", and becomes un-engaged with Baby, you can see the Baby do everything in its power to get the mother back. Baby smiles, Baby points, Baby shrieks, Baby cries. Until the experiment is over, there is nothing Baby can do to get mother back. You can see Baby struggling in emotionally and physically in response.


"Relational Trauma" is when this kind of disconnection becomes a pattern.

 

How Humans Cope with Disconnection


Babies and young children will typically cope with relational trauma by adopting one of two strategies.


1. They will do everything they can to get the caregiver's attention, or to meet the caregiver's needs in order to get their own needs met. You might think of this like "co-dependence", where someone consistently puts the needs of someone else before their own. They are often hyper-vigilant to physical or emotional abandonment, and do whatever they can to try to avoid it.


2. They give up. They stop attempting to get their needs met through their caregivers. They attempt to become ultra-independent, relying only on themselves, and shutting down any feelings that they don't know how to deal with on their own.


When patterns of disconnection are combined with abuse, children may not have an organized strategy like those above. Instead, they may erratically go back and forth between the two.


 

Relational Trauma and Its Aftermath


Children learn these kinds of organized strategies to cope with early experiences of disconnection, and these patterns become memory systems, consequently, kids will carry these relational patterns into their adult lives. See my post Attachment 101: What's Love Got To Do With It. While these strategies may be effective to survive as children, they are not strategies that lead to healthy emotional connection as adults. As a result, many of us who have experienced relational trauma are at risk for repeating the pattern as adults, finding ourselves in unhealthy relationships that want for mutuality and connection.


Healing from Relational Trauma


Recovery from relational trauma can only happen in relationships. When you are able to experience a safe relationship with someone who is emotionally available to you, you no longer have to anticipate abandonment and disconnection. You can recognize when and how those feelings come up, and how you respond to those feelings. You can learn alternative ways to relate. Maybe for the first time, you can experience a relationship where you do not have to focus on protecting yourself. And instead, you can the opportunity to focus on your self, your feelings and your own needs. This is what therapy is all about: the freedom to connect with your best self!


At Creating Space Counseling and Wellness, through long-term weekly therapy, you can actually modify your "working model of relationships" that you developed as a young child so that you can have safer, more emotionally connected relationships with both intimate partners and your children.


Call today to schedule an appointment! 856-281-1664