Early relational trauma

© Andrea Bentley for Auckland Therapy Blog, 1 August 2018

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early relational traumaThe lasting wound

It hurts

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. They’re inconsistent 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:

  1. 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.
  2. When someone 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.
  3. 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 flowing.

Grownups sometimes are really just children with longer arms and legs.

Heal me

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 earliest relationships.

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 wound.

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.

Find a Therapist

andrea bentley headshotAndrea Bentley (Pakuranga & Greenlane) is part of our Citywide team of registered therapists. For more information or to arrange an appointment please contact any of the team.

Questions or comments : If you have a question about this post or a question on another topic relating to therapy that could be answered here, please email Andrea and we’ll see what we can do.

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An experienced group of registered psychotherapists offering counselling and psychotherapy services citywide in Auckland.  Find an Auckland Therapist by suburb or learn more about the Services we offer or Issues with work with.

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