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What Is Relational Trauma?

What Is Relational Trauma?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), describes trauma as “an event, or series of events, that causes moderate to severe stress reactions…[that are] characterized by a sense of horror, helplessness, serious injury, or the threat of serious injury or death.” Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), and is a mental disorder that could develop after a teen experiences trauma. It is defined by the Mayo Clinic as “a mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event—either experiencing it or witnessing it.” Unlike PTSD that is caused by a single traumatic event or isolated incidents, complex relational trauma caused by ongoing trauma and/ or repeated abuse that occurs over time. 

Complex Relational Trauma Basics

It is easiest to understand complex relational trauma through the workings of the attachment relationship. All through infancy, childhood, and adolescence young people are dependent upon their caregivers to keep them emotionally, mentally, and physically safe. This is accomplished through a secure relationship that builds the foundation of one’s ability to regulate and develop effective emotional coping mechanisms. A secure attachment reinforces the notion in young people that upsetting experiences are following by support and comfort. The development of a secure attachment relationship bond between parent-child is integral to a child’s mental and emotional development and overall wellbeing. Relational trauma occurs when there is a consistent disruption (e.g., childhood physical, emotional, sexual abuse, neglect, repeated violations of boundaries, rejection, betrayal, etc.) of a child’s sense of being safe and loved within the family.


The symptoms that present because of relational trauma typically manifest during one’s adult years, long after exposure to chronic maltreatment as a child. Symptoms of complex trauma can be psychological, physical, behavioral, and emotional. Common signs may include, but are not limited to the following examples, provided by Healthline:

  • Psychological symptoms
    • Dissociation
    • Suicidal ideation
    • Lacks trust in self and others
    • Difficulty concentrating
    • Poor self-esteem
  • Physical symptoms
    • Difficulty sleeping
    • Gastrointestinal complications
    • Easily startled by loud noises
    • Headaches
    • Dizziness
    • Chest pains
    • Nightmares
  • Behavioral symptoms:
    • Engaging in destructive or risky behaviors
    • Experiencing intrusive thoughts about past traumatic events
    • Socially isolating
    • Substance abuse and/ or alcohol abuse
  • Emotional symptoms
    • Depression
    • Anxiety
    • Panic attacks
    • Unable to effectively manage negative emotions (e.g., stress, sadness, fear, etc.)
    • Overdependence on the attention of others

If relational trauma is left untreated, its symptoms can be pervasively disruptive and interfere with one’s ability to function in his or her daily life. 

For Information and Support

Every family in need of mental health treatment must select a program that will best suit the needs of their family. When one member of a family struggles, it impacts everyone in the family unit. To maximize the benefits of treatment we work closely with the entire family to ensure that everyone is receiving the support they need through these difficult times.

Seeking help is never easy, but you are not alone! If you or someone you know needs mental health treatment, we strongly encourage you to reach out for help as quickly as possible. It is not uncommon for many mental health difficulties to impact a person’s life, long term. Pursuing support at the beginning of one’s journey can put the individual in the best position to learn how to manage themselves in a healthy way so they can go on to live happy and fulfilling lives.


We are available to answer any questions you may have regarding mental health treatment and our residential program, anytime. Contact us today using the form to the right.

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