Early relational trauma is the damage that’s caused when your parents or
primary caregivers aren’t very good at their job. In one form or another
and for whatever reason, they’re just not able to look after you the way
you, as a small child, need to be looked after. It usually happens in
one of three ways:
They ignore or maybe
even reject your wants and needs. You ask as best you can, but they just
don’t hear you. It might be because they don’t know how, or they might
have too many demands on them, or they might have substance abuse or
mental health issues of their own. The reason doesn’t matter all that
much, but the result is usually the same: your needs go unmet.
They emotionally, mentally or physically abuse you. This one is easy to understand. They hurt you –
either with their hands or their words. It might be all they know from
their own upbringing. And often it’s the injuries that nobody can see
that hurt the most.
with their care. One moment they’re there and the next they’re not, and
you never know where you stand from moment to moment. Either you’re
lavished with attention, or you’re ignored completely – or possibly
someplace in between. You don’t know what to expect, and you don’t know
what you did or didn’t do to make it that way.
Of course we’re not talking about these things happening once in awhile.
No parent is perfect, and raising children is hard work. We can’t get
everything exactly right all the time. But when a parent or caregiver
consistently fails to take care of a child, the child gets hurt
psychologically, emotionally, or physically. Unfortunately, just growing
up and becoming an adult yourself might not be enough to fix it. It can
stay with you for the rest of your life.
It’s still bleeding
You do grow up though, and you bring that early trauma with you into
your adult world. But what does it look like? How do those injuries you
suffered when you were small and unable to defend yourself show up in
your bigger and older self? Often it’s some version of what you did to
protect yourself as a child:
If your wants and needs were ignored or rejected, you probably decided at some point that
the easy way to keep from getting hurt was to stop wanting, stop
needing. You’ll just do it for yourself instead of asking someone to
help. And since it worked well enough for you to make it this far, you
keep doing the same thing as an adult. You’re ‘independent’ – so much so
that you shut down when you feel a want or need. You don’t voice your
feelings, or you dismiss them as being unimportant. You may even keep
secrets as a way to stay separate and safe. Take away the weapons and
you can’t be hurt.
threatens you, you have a few choices for keeping yourself safe. You can
fight, you can flee, or you can freeze. Little-you wouldn’t have been
very successful at fighting, so no doubt you ran when you could and
stayed still when you couldn’t. Grownup-you, on the other hand, can
probably fight back, or at least lash out, but running away and hiding
might still be your first choice. You do this by trusting no one and
staying emotionally closed. If you keep your distance they can’t reach
you, and if you roll into a ball at least you can limit your exposure.
And that little
person who never knew what to expect? There’s a good chance that you
were always trying to figure out the magic words or the perfect dance
move that got you the love and attention you needed. After all, you must
have done something right at some point; now if you could only remember
what it was. Keep talking. Keep dancing. But whatever you do, don’t let
them go. Don’t let them lose sight of you. Cling to them as tightly as
you can. Whatever the adult version of grabbing onto your partner’s leg
is, you do it in the blind hope that love and attention will keep
Grownups sometimes are really just children with longer arms and legs.
You may wonder how some people go through horrific trauma, war, plane
crashes, natural disasters, and somehow come out the other side, perhaps
changed somewhat, but seemingly whole and relatively healthy. Yet you
experienced something in your childhood that looks, from your adult
perspective, to be small by comparison. How did they get through that
terrible thing while you’re still struggling all these years later?
The answer appears to be talking about what happened.
Survivors of a disaster can share their story, make sense of it and
re-establish understanding and predictability in their inner world. You
as a child never had that chance. You probably didn’t have the words for
it, and you might not have had anyone to talk to even if you did. Unlike
disaster survivors, who went through something public and possibly
shared by others, only you (and your caregivers) know what you’ve been
though. And now it feels like it’s too late. You need relationships – we
all do in order to have a meaningful life – but the well of human
connection you must sip from has been poisoned by the traumas from your
Except it’s not too late. You can’t go back to being a child and change
what your parents or caregivers did, but you can learn to make meaning
of your experiences and grow through them. Psychotherapy lets you
explore and understand your relational trauma in a safe and supportive
environment. You can learn how to be in a healthy relationship. A
therapist’s job is to work with you to remove the silence and heal the
Psychotherapy provides a way to understand and develop insight to redress relational dynamics that are no longer helpful. Through a safe and supportive relationship, therapy can provide opportunities to find new ways of coping that support you to develop and enter into secure and mutually satisfying relationships.