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The Impact of Relational & Childhood Trauma

Relational trauma is a type of trauma that relates to emotional damage done within a trusted relationship. Learn how relational trauma impacts a teenager’s mental health.

The term “relational trauma” means just what the words imply, that the trauma arose via a relationship. Not just any relationship, but a close one in which a child would have had a sense of trust.

The connection between a child and his or her parents or caregivers has a profound impact on the child’s future wellbeing. It paves the way for mental wellness and healthy relating for the rest of their life. But when that connection is marred by abuse, neglect, abandonment, or alcoholism, trauma can result.

What is Relational Trauma?

When most of us think of trauma we imagine it as a very scary or dangerous event. This might be a natural disaster, an auto accident, a violent attack, or other such events. Being exposed to a traumatic event can cause many emotional issues, and even lead to PTSD.

Relational trauma is different. It is caused by an ongoing exposure to dysfunction that occurs within a trusted relationship. As a result, the child begins to feel less secure or safe within that relationship. This can lead to a sense of helplessness or detachment.

Children who were not raised in a secure relationship become teens and then adults who bear the scars of this type of childhood. They may develop avoidant attachment styles because they don’t allow themselves to get too close to people. They may have low self-esteem and gravitate toward substance use disorder. In sum, relational trauma can have a negative impact on a child’s identity and cause lifelong interpersonal issues.

What Causes Relational Trauma?

When it comes to identifying the causes of this type of trauma, consider if any of these were present during childhood:

  • Domestic violence.
  • Incest
  • Sexual abuse.
  • Physical abuse.
  • Substance use disorder.
  • Neglect
  • Abandonment
  • Enmeshment

Symptoms of Relational Trauma

The symptoms of this type of trauma will differ based its exact source. Whether the child was beaten, ignored, witnessed domestic violence, raised by parents that were addicts, etc. will produce unique symptoms. In general, these are common symptoms of relational trauma:

  • Low motivation.
  • Highly emotional.
  • Low self-esteem.
  • Can’t cope with stressful situations.
  • Depression
  • Learning or developmental delays.
  • Mistrust of authority figures.
  • Social anxiety.
  • Neediness
  • Manipulative; selfish behavior.
  • Avoidant behavior.
  • Somatic symptoms.
  • Relives past traumas.
  • Having a negative attitude.

The Effects of Relational Trauma on Teen Mental Health

Teens who have a past history of relational trauma may struggle in various ways. They may struggle to form attachments with others, which can impede social growth.

Some of the ways relational trauma can impact teenage mental health include:

Social anxiety. Social anxiety features an intense fear of being judged or made fun of by peers. They tend to avoid of social settings, have no interest in sports or social activities, and easily embarrassed.

Depression. Depression symptoms can include persistent sadness, change in eating and sleeping habits, fatigue, loss of interest, anger, moodiness, feeling guilt or shame, and suicidal thoughts.

Low self-esteem. Low self-esteem can impact the teen’s grades and social life. Symptoms of low self-esteem include negative self-talk, avoids competition, prefers video games to social scenes, and eating disorders.

It doesn’t seem to matter how this type of trauma manifests during the teen years. It is bound to have an outsize impact on a teen’s ability to form healthy relationships. This hinders the teen across all domains during the important teenage years, and sets them up for problems in adulthood.

How Relational Trauma Impacts Relationships in Adulthood

Someone who was raised in a dysfunctional home is likely to have trouble relating to people in a trusting intimate way in adulthood. They grew up knowing that the people you care about, who say they love you, were a source of pain. This can seep deeply into the psyche where it will drive behaviors for years to come.

The impact of relational trauma is very similar to PTSD. Both of these conditions share traits, such as the presence of fear, anxiety, mistrust, and insecurity. Both can lead to avoidance behaviors, substance uise disorder, and reliving the memories. The main difference between these types of trauma is that relational trauma is rooted in past relationships. This is quite different from experiencing a shocking traumatic event in the present.

In adulthood, this type of childhood trauma can be repeated. Sadly, the person may end up repeating the very same dysfunctional behaviors on their own kids, thus repeating the cycle.

Teens Finding Peace After Trauma

Parents with teens who have relational trauma may recoil from the thought that they may have been instrumental in it. In many cases, the parent may have simply repeated the cycle they were familiar with in their own childhood. Isn’t it time to break the cycle?

There is help for teens with this type of trauma disorder. Parents who become concerned about their teen can first seek help with a private mental health professional. These experts may be able to work with the teen to help them overcome the trauma.

If the teen is not improving, then a more intensive type of treatment is an excellent option. A small-scale residential program for teens can provide them with an opportunity to work through their relational trauma issues.

These teen mental health programs provide these services:

  • Therapy. Working with a therapist can help the teen identify the source of the trauma, and then process and heal.
  • Family therapy. Family group allows the parents and siblings to also be included in the healing process.
  • Peer group. Small group sessions provide peer support and discussion.
  • Experiential. Movement enhances the clinical results, such as hiking, rock climbing, surfing, or sports.
  • Academic. Teens are offered tutors and academic support while in treatment

To heal, the source of the relational trauma must be identified and worked through. Seek help for your teen now.

BNI Treatment Centers Residential Mental Health Treatment for Teens

BNI Treatment Centers has developed a teen-centric treatment model for adolescents aged 12-17. The program provides full-spectrum treatment to help teens work through a relational trauma. If your teen is dealing with trauma, give us a call today at (888) 522-1504.

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