Trauma and Relationships

Children who have experienced toxic stress and trauma arising from abuse and neglect are likely to have been exposed to inconsistent, hostile and rejecting models of connection to their parents/carers.  For them, experiences of safety and security are rare.  As a consequence, they find it difficult to trust those around them.  Traumatised young people carry these models of poor connection with them into other relationships, making it difficult for them to feel settled and engaged.

Connection – the importance of it

Children’s capacity to shape their internal emotional state is interdependent on their carer’s ability and willingness to recognise, acknowledge and help them manage those feelings.  Parents/carers play the vital role of interpreter between internal and external worlds of children and young people.  By anticipating how their carers will respond, children come to know how to behave and communicate their needs and feelings.

The more predictable the response to them, the greater the confidence that children develop in both what the feel and how they understand the world.  In particular, they learn that they are able to solve problems.  If they can’t do so on their own, they learn that they can find and trust others who can help them.  Children can then identify relationships as a source of comfort.  They develop implicit memory templates that allow them to transfer the strengths of these experiences to new relationships and other social opportunities.

Trauma and disrupted connection

In the context of trauma, parents/carers do not try or are unable to take over the function of interpreter and moderator of feelings experienced by the children.  Traumatised children learn that their external environment cannot provide any relief for them.  They do not come to trust others to help them manage their internal states.  They develop few or problematic working models for how to organise their emotions and their behavior.  As such, they struggle to make sense of their experiences, are not confident in the new environments and do not easily adapt to new experiences.

In out-of-home care, when carers begin to be affectionate and loving with children, traumatised children will often find this quite confusing. They do not have an effective model of relationships that enables them to engage with a new carer.  Trauma-influenced models of relationships are generally comprised of mistrust, ambivalence, fear and confusion.  When these relationships do not work, the children themselves take this failure as reinforcement that they are to blame and in many ways feel responsible for their own chaos and isolation.

Consequently, relationships are the way of healing.  These compensatory relational experiences center around the following key features:

  • There is consistent approach to communication
  • Children have their feelings acknowledged and validated by adults
  • Children experience adults as being protective towards them
  • Children experience adults trying to take care of them even when their behavior is challenging and complex

The experience of one significant relationship which has these qualities for children can make the world of different to them.

Further Resources