Relational trauma is trauma that occurred within a close relationship, usually with a caregiver. Its effects can be vast — but over time, therapy and self-care can help.
The term “relational“ means the trauma happened within a close relationship. Relational trauma can, for example, be the result of ongoing abuse, abandonment, or enmeshment.
A child’s relationship with their parents or caregivers invariably affects their self-image and future relationships. When that relationship is disrupted, it can cause relational trauma. This may lead to various mental health issues.
Experiences of relational trauma at a young age can affect how you relate to other people later in life, leading to difficulties in adult relationships, such as with setting boundaries and experiencing toxic relationships. It can also lead to difficulties in how you relate to and understand yourself, such as problems with self-esteem and sense of self.
While the term usually focuses on childhood trauma, events and relationships that take place in your adulthood can also lead to relational trauma.
Relational trauma is trauma that arises from an unhealthy relationship.
Relational trauma is not caused by a single event, but rather an ongoing set of events and the nature of the relationship between two people. As a result, the term is often used interchangeably with “relationship trauma” or “relationship post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).”
Usually, the term relational trauma refers to the result of:
- Abuse: harmful experiences that could be physical, sexual, or emotional in nature
- Neglect: trauma as a result of things that didn‘t happen, such as physical or emotional neglect
- Enmeshment: a lack of boundaries between family members that can impair a child’s independence and sense of self
Since the caregiver relationship is so important to a child’s socialization, relational trauma often affects multiple aspects of one’s life, even in adulthood.
Relational trauma can also be the result of relationship difficulties between a child and their peers, siblings, or other close loved ones.
With this said, relationships in adulthood can cause similar issues to that in child relational trauma. This is often referred to as “adult relational trauma.”
Complex PTSD and relational trauma
Relational trauma can overlap with complex PTSD, which is caused by repeated trauma or long-term trauma, including the sort that relational trauma refers to.
Complex PTSD can include the symptoms of regular PTSD, plus other symptoms, too. The symptoms of complex PTSD may include:
- a negative self-image
- emotional dysregulation
- relationship difficulties
- difficulty recognizing reality
Although the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5) doesn’t recognize complex PTSD as a separate condition, the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) lists complex PTSD as a condition.
Relational trauma can show up in various ways. In particular, it affects your sense of self and your relationships. Not everybody who experiences relational trauma will behave and think in the same way.
As a result of relational trauma, you might experience:
- difficulties with self-esteem
- problems with setting or maintaining boundaries
- difficulty maintaining healthy relationships (you might experience codependency, for example)
- social anxiety or generalized anxiety
- avoidant behavior
- difficulty becoming independent
- neediness or manipulation in relationships
- developmental delays and cognitive difficulties
Additionally, all kinds of trauma, including relational trauma, can result in or contribute to mental health difficulties. Someone who experienced relational trauma could have mental health conditions (like eating disorders, depression, or PTSD) or personality disorders (such as borderline personality disorder).
These difficulties can be addressed through therapy and self-care strategies.
Relational trauma is usually the result of experiencing a disrupted relationship with your caregiver when you are a child. But what exactly does this mean?
Abuse and neglect
Being abused or neglected by your caregiver can result in relational trauma. This is one of the most common causes of relational trauma.
Even if your parent did not literally abandon you, you may have felt abandoned. This could be because of the death of a parent or caregiver or their sudden absence due to divorce, migrant work, war, or other factors.
While your caregiver may have been physically present, you might have felt emotionally abandoned if your parent didn’t or couldn’t offer emotional support to you as a child.
A parent might find it difficult to offer their child emotional support because of:
- their own mental health difficulties
- substance use
- demanding work hours
- domestic violence
- needing to care for other family members
- feeling overwhelmed by a child’s needs
Even if the child understands and is sympathetic toward the parent’s issues, the lack of emotional support can lead to relational trauma.
Emotional enmeshment can also cause relational trauma. This is often caused by the parent or caregiver relying on the child to fill their emotional needs, which might mean that the child’s needs are not met.
Enmeshment can also occur when the caregiver is overly involved in the child’s life, causing them to feel “suffocated.” The parent might not respect the child’s boundaries or allow them to become independent, which can affect the child’s sense of self.
Coping with the effects of relational trauma can be difficult, but it’s possible to recover from trauma.
Also known as psychotherapy, talk therapy can be helpful for addressing trauma of all kinds, as well as any mental health difficulties that result from it.
A therapist can help you understand the effects that relational trauma has had on your behaviors, thought patterns, and sense of self — and they can work with you to help you address any issues you would like to resolve.
Various kinds of therapy can be used for relational trauma, including:
- cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
- dialectical behavior therapy (DBT)
- prolonged exposure therapy (PE)
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy
- humanistic therapy
- eclectic therapy (a combination of different therapy modalities)
Group therapy might also be beneficial.
Because relational trauma can result in depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, and more, you might benefit from prescription medication, such as antidepressants or anti-anxiety medication. While this isn’t always necessary, it’s often beneficial.
Various self-care strategies might help you cope with the results of relational trauma. These strategies will differ from person to person.
Self-care strategies can include:
- Identifying the triggers of your anxiety, depression, and trauma responses and finding ways to cope with them.
- Eating regularly and getting enough sleep, because low blood sugar and poor sleep can disrupt your mood.
- Finding health-promoting ways to de-stress and unwind, such as exercise or meditation.
- Finding health-promoting emotional outlets, such as journaling, a creative hobby, or something similar.
- Maintaining relationships with loved ones (if this is difficult for you, it might be a good idea to address it in therapy).
- Attending a trauma-informed support group, whether online or in person.
A therapist can help you test out new self-care strategies.
Although coping with relational trauma can be difficult, it is possible to heal from it. The trauma itself will not go away, but you can learn to deal with it in a healthy way.
There are many effective treatments for addressing relational trauma. Finding a trauma-focused therapist is a good start. You might also benefit from therapy groups that relate to your specific trauma.
Looking for a therapist, but not sure where to start? Psych Central’s How to Find Mental Health Support resource can help.