What is Relational Trauma?

relational trauma

The relationships that human beings have with one another are some of the greatest influences in their lives. It’s through relationships that human beings learn not only how to love and care for one another, but unfortunately, also how to hurt and neglect one another. People whose relationships caused them to experience abuse, neglect, and dysfunction in life often develop some form of relational trauma.

Relational trauma is a term that refers to the mental disturbances and behavioral health challenges that people who experience abuse, neglect, and dysfunction often develop. Because of relational trauma, many people who have experienced some form of abuse, neglect, or dysfunction struggle to create and maintain healthy and trusting relationships with other human beings throughout their lives. People who suffer from relational trauma also often suffer from identity issues and poor self-esteem.

Shortidge Academy is a private therapeutic boarding school that can help your child and family navigate through relational trauma. Our Center for teen counseling in New England utilizes individualized therapy and treatments to let your child put their best foot forward in life.

Types of Relational Trauma

There are two types of relational trauma: childhood relational trauma and adult relational trauma.

Childhood Relational Trauma

Childhood relational trauma is relational trauma that traces back to the abuse, neglect, and dysfunction that people’s parents or caretakers inflicted on them as children. Many people suffer from childhood relational trauma because the parents and caretakers in their lives physically, sexually, or emotionally abused them.

Many people also suffer from childhood relational trauma because they were neglected or abandoned early on in life. Thus, they did not get their emotional needs met as a baby or child.

Some people even develop childhood relational trauma due to experiencing intense and persistent bullying from people outside of their homes as children. Developing childhood relational trauma this way is much rarer though.

Adult Relational Trauma

Adult relational trauma is relational trauma that forms as a result of some sort of abuse, neglect, or abandonment that an individual experienced later on in life when he or she was no longer a child. Such abuse, neglect, or abandonment often occurs at the hands of family members, romantic partners, friends, co-workers, peers, teachers, or predatory strangers.

Although adult relational trauma develops later on in a person’s life, it causes individuals to experience mental disturbances and behavioral health challenges from that point on. Adult relational trauma even causes people to struggle to develop healthy relationships with others throughout the rest of their adult lives.

Ultimately, relational trauma, whether formed in childhood or adulthood, causes people to struggle feeling safe and secure when forming attachments or interpersonal relationships. As a result, relational trauma impacts essentially every aspect of a person’s life. In fact, relational trauma is often the reason why people struggle with anger, impulsivity, learning difficulties, behavioral issues, and toxic traits such as being selfish or socially manipulative.

Signs and Symptoms of Relational Trauma

There are numerous signs that a person may suffer from relational trauma. Some of the common signs and symptoms of relational trauma include the following:

  • Codependency
  • Excessive neediness
  • Volatile and uncontrollable emotions
  • Anger issues
  • Poor self-esteem
  • Poor lack of self
  • Helplessness
  • Fear and mistrust of intimacy
  • Social anxiety
  • Attitude issues
  • Antisocial behaviors
  • Socially manipulative behaviors
  • Selfishness or self-centeredness
  • Perpetual negativity, cynicism, or pessimism
  • Learning issues
  • Discipline issues
  • Developmental delays
  • Depression
  • Constant aches, pains, and illness despite not appearing to suffer from medical issues
  • PTSD
  • Avoiding people, places, and things that remind them of past traumatic experiences
  • Inconsistent, abusive, or neglectful parenting styles

Data and Statistics on Trauma

Trauma is often so impactful that it affects not only a person’s relationships, but every aspect of a person’s life. In fact, the mental disturbances and behavioral challenges that people develop because of trauma, unfortunately, often become who they are.

As a result, people often end up replicating the abusive, toxic, and neglectful behaviors that were inflicted on them by inflicting them on others. This is especially true for people who suffer from childhood relational trauma who later become parents. Thus, trauma often gets passed down from generation to generation. 

In fact, if given the chance, many people will spread trauma to anyone close to them. This causes trauma to be more pervasive than people realize. The data and statistics below show just how pervasive trauma is.

  • 70% of adults in the U.S. have experienced some type of traumatic event at least once in their lives.
  • The annual cost of trauma in the U.S. due to medical care and work loss is approximately $4.2 trillion.
  • 20% of people who experience a traumatic event will develop PTSD.
  • In a given year, around 13 million Americans suffer from PTSD.
  • One in 13 people will develop PTSD at some point in life.
  • According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), more than two-thirds of children reported experiencing at least one traumatic event by age 16.

Note that, although these data and stats come from credible studies and sources, there are always some children and adults who’ve experienced some form of abuse or neglect who aren’t willing to admit so in a study. Also note that studies often miss asking and surveying many people of certain communities.

Thus, one can assume that the number of people abused and neglected throughout these stats is even higher than given. This is especially true for children and adults of color.

Common Reasons Why People Develop Relational Trauma

  • Experiencing physical abuse
  • Experiencing emotional and/or psychological abuse
  • Experiencing sexual abuse
  • Experiencing domestic violence or witnessing domestic violence amongst parents, caretakers, and other family members or close friends while growing up
  • Being bullied in school or on social media
  • Being abandoned by one or more parents
  • Being neglected by parents or caretakers as a baby or child
  • Experiencing infidelity or abandonment by one’s spouse or romantic partner
  • Being rejected, bullied, or mistreated due to one’s physical or mental disabilities
  • Being a victim of sexual exploitation
  • Experiencing a national disaster or act of terrorism
  • Experiencing or witnessing community or school violence
  • Experiencing a violent or sudden loss of a loved one
  • Refugee or war experiences
  • Military family-related stressors such as deployment or parental loss or injury

How is Relational Trauma Diagnosed?

While relational trauma is technically not an official mental health disorder, it often plays a huge role in the development of other mental health disorders that people often seek treatment for. Thus, mental health professionals can recognize the symptoms of relational trauma during therapy or while treating individuals for other mental health issues. When patients exhibit numerous of the symptoms of relational trauma, mental health professionals can make a diagnosis of the condition.

Relational Trauma and Co-Occurring Disorders

As previously mentioned, relational trauma often plays a role in the development of other mental health disorders. Relational trauma also often shares many of the causes and risk factors as other mental health disorders. Thus, relational trauma often co-occurs with other mental illnesses.

One mental health disorder that closely correlates with relational trauma is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Depression and various anxiety disorders also often co-occur with relational trauma.

People who struggle to cope with relational trauma often also develop eating disorders. Picking up self-harming behaviors and drug and alcohol abuse issues is also very common for individuals who struggle to cope with relational trauma.

Relational Trauma Treatment

therapy for relation trauma

Because rewiring the connections to toxic behaviors and coping mechanisms that have been formed in the brain of someone with relational trauma is a long and difficult process, the best way to treat the condition is through intensive, inpatient or residential treatment. Through inpatient or residential treatment, individuals with relational trauma can receive the 24/7 care and therapy that they need to confront their trauma head-on and learn new and healthy ways to cope and function. For instance, at Shortridge, we use cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for teens as a leading therapeutic practice to help young adults navigate through trauma.

Remember, most people who suffer from relational trauma also suffer from some other co-occurring mental health and/or substance use disorders. Therefore, inpatient or residential treatment will also give individuals with relational trauma the intensive care that they need to overcome their co-occurring disorders as well.

Treat Relational Trauma at Shortridge Academy

trauma recovery

Shortridge Academy is a therapeutic boarding school for adolescents between grades nine and 12. Shortridge Academy’s mission is to nurture the cognitive, emotional, and social development of bright adolescents with mental or behavioral health issues that they need to overcome.

The Shortridge Academy environment is therapeutic, supportive, and educational. Guided by a Positive Youth Development perspective, Shortridge Academy partners with students and their families to not only provide students with traditional academic teaching that prepares them for college, but also to identify their strengths and develop their life skills. That way, Shortridge Academy students leave the school being healthier, more well-rounded, and, most importantly, prepared for adulthood.

Shortridge Academy achieves its mission by using clearly-defined, goal-directed plans and evidence-based therapies and strategies. Through the school’s evidence-based therapies and strategies, Shortridge Academy students can treat their relational trauma.

To learn more about Shortridge Academy and how the school can help high-school students treat their relational trauma, contact us here. The Academy is more than happy to answer any questions that you may have.

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