When we think about trauma, we typically think of military veterans, survivors of sexual abuse, and those who have lived through natural disasters. These experiences leave deeply etched scars that negatively affect both physical and mental health—for years and sometimes for lifetimes.
But there’s another type of trauma that we don’t hear nearly as much about. It might not look as dramatic from the outside, but it leaves marks that are just as deep and wounding, in their own way. It’s called relational trauma.
We are social beings—hard-wired for relationships—and the most significant relationships of all are those between children and their primary caregivers.
These relationships, to a large degree, determine who we will be as adults. They mold our capacity for relationship—not only the dynamics of our relationships with others but also the kind of relationship we have with ourselves.
It all starts with how secure we feel in the very first relationships we experience.
Relational trauma occurs when there is consistent disruption of a child’s sense of being safe and loved within the family. The most common causes of this disruption are abandonment and enmeshment by one or more caregivers.
Physical abandonment might occur as a result of divorce or death. Emotional abandonment can be more covert. It is when a caregiver consistently disregards, cannot fulfill, or denies a child’s need for acceptance, boundaries, love, and guidance. This type of abandonment can happen for many reasons. A parent might feel overwhelmed by the child’s needs. They might be preoccupied with their own emotional needs, their partner’s needs, or the needs of another child who has demanding physical or mental health issues. Or their energy might be consumed by external circumstances, such as work or relationships outside the family. Substance abuse is also a common cause of emotional abandonment.
While all parents get distracted sometimes, and no parent is perfect, emotional abandonment is caused by behavior that’s ongoing and that is not aligned with the child’s temperament.
There's another side of the coin: emotional enmeshment.
Emotional enmeshment is what happens when a parent or caregiver relies on the child to take care of their emotional needs.
When a parent’s emotional needs aren’t being fulfilled by another adult, they sometimes look to their child to fill that hole. Even at a very young age, children are intuitively aware of these needs and try to meet them because children naturally want to make their caregivers happy. The result, as with emotional abandonment, is that the needs of the child don’t get met. In the short- and long-term, this can lead to boundary issues, self-esteem problems, and other mental-health challenges that can affect all types of relationships down the road—whether they’re romantic, platonic, or with one’s own children.
The more a child's needs are inconsistently met, the greater the negative impact it will have on their life.
To say that some children are sensitive is incorrect. All children—all humans—are sensitive. Some can conform to acceptable norms, and some cannot. Those who can may be more covert in hiding their wounds, with most of the dysfunction showing up in intimate relationships. Those who are less able to adapt may show their trauma in more overt displays, such as substance use disorders, self-harm, mental-health issues, and personality disorders.
Relational trauma can also lead to physical health problems, much like the physical issues that affect those with PTSD—including headaches, insomnia, fatigue, digestive issues, and chronic pain.
Most parents do not intend to create relational trauma.
Parents and caregivers whose behavior creates relational trauma don’t do so knowingly or intentionally. In almost all cases, their abandonment or enmeshment is a result of their own untreated relational trauma. That’s why stopping the cycle is so essential.
Once a parent becomes conscious of their needs and their shortcomings, they can learn to shift their behavior by looking at the root causes. Therapy that focuses on forging authentic connection and creating new, healthier coping mechanisms is most effective in repairing relational trauma. A combination of clinical and experiential therapeutic modalities, tailored to the individual, is usually most beneficial. That’s because each case is unique, depending on the person’s age, the severity of the relational trauma they suffered, and how it’s affecting their life.
Here are five signs that relational trauma could be affecting you:
1. You feel suffocated by other people's needs.
Relational trauma in childhood can lead to what’s known as "avoidant attachment" in relationships, particularly romantic relationships. People with avoidant attachment style see intimacy as a loss of independence and tend to keep people at arm’s length. Or they value intimacy but have difficulty with it because they find it hard to trust others.
2. You're extra-clingy.
Children who don’t feel safe will often cling tightly to their parent/caregiver out of fear of being abandoned—even if that person is the one who creates the feelings of fear and anxiety. The same behavior can play out in adult relationships. If you find yourself holding on to a relationship even though it consistently makes you feel frightened or unloved, it might be old patterns at work. Relational trauma can also lead people to feel and act clingy even when they’re in a loving, stable relationship, with no obvious reasons for being insecure.
3. You think you're either better than or worse than everyone else.
Self-esteem is one of the areas most severely affected by relational trauma. A child whose needs aren’t getting met may internalize the message that they are unworthy of love. On the other hand, a child who has been given too much control over their parents’ emotional well-being (as in cases of emotional enmeshment) may tend to have feelings of false superiority or power. Both of these mindsets carry into adult life.
4. You engage in self-destructive behaviors.
The pain associated with relational trauma runs deep. It’s not unusual for people to self-medicate with alcohol, drugs, or self-harming behaviors, which temporarily relieve that pain.
5. You feel empty and alone, even when you're in a relationship.
Relational trauma can prevent healthy development of the self; children who aren’t able to bond properly with their caregivers can grow into adults who don’t have the capacity to nurture themselves. That lack of self-care and self-compassion affects all areas of their life.
Building caring, supportive relationships can help fill that emptiness. But the real work of becoming a loving "parent" to yourself is up to you. The first step is self-awareness; the second step is seeking help. Change and healing are possible.