Trauma has a powerful impact on teen mental health. It doesn’t matter whether the trauma is ongoing, such as sexual abuse, or the result of a single incident, such as a car accident or house fire. However it occurs, trauma negatively affects everyone who experiences it, including children, teenagers, and adults.
One type of trauma that we don’t hear nearly as much about is called relational trauma. Relational trauma occurs in childhood when the bonding between parent and child is somehow disrupted or interrupted. Consequently, this is particularly harmful, because the relationship between a child and their parent/caregiver plays a huge part in shaping who they will be as a teen and an adult. Furthermore, these primary relationships impact all the other relationships that come afterward. This includes relationships with others and with oneself.
“Secure and stable relationships are the foundation for healthy emotional development and subsequent secure and stable relationships.”
—Dr. Graham Barker, psychologist, author of “The Effects of Trauma on Attachment”
The Causes of Relational Trauma
Relational trauma occurs when there is consistent disruption of a child’s sense of being safe and loved within the family. The most common cause of this disruption is either abandonment or enmeshment. This can be caused by one or more parents or caregivers.
Parents and caregivers whose behavior creates relational trauma don’t do so knowingly or intentionally. In addition, in almost all cases, their abandonment or enmeshment is a result of their own untreated relational trauma. In this way, the cycle can continue through generations.
Physical or Emotional Abandonment
There are two types of abandonment that can catalyze relational trauma. They are physical abandonment and emotional abandonment.
- Physical abandonment may occur as a result of divorce or death. One parent is no longer physically present to care for or bond with the child.
- Emotional abandonment occurs when a caregiver consistently disregards, cannot fulfill, or denies a child’s need for acceptance, boundaries, love, and guidance.
Emotional abandonment can happen for many reasons, including:
- The parent or caregiver is overwhelmed by the child’s needs
- A parent/caregiver is preoccupied with their own emotional needs, their partner’s needs, or the needs of another child who has demanding physical or mental-health issues
- The caregiver’s energy is consumed by external circumstances, such as work or relationships outside the family
- Substance abuse prevents the parent/caregiver from being emotionally present for the child.
The other common cause of relational trauma is emotional enmeshment. There are two primary types of emotional enmeshment.
- A parent/caregiver relies on the child to take care of their emotional needs. The parent looks to the child to fill their emotional needs. Children naturally want to make their caregivers happy. Consequently, even at a very young age, children intuitively try to meet the needs of the adults who are most important to them. The result is that the needs of the child don’t get met.
- The parent/caregiver is overly involved in the child’s emotional life. This typically applies when the child is old enough to feel suffocated by the parent’s ongoing, inappropriate emotional involvement in their life. Moreover, this can affect the child’s ability to form an independent sense of self.
The Impact of Relational Trauma
Relational trauma can result in a variety of different mental health issues. All children are sensitive, but children react to relational trauma in different ways as they age. Some are able to conform to societal norms despite relational trauma. However, the scars they received may make it difficult for them to maintain intimate relationships. Those who are less able to adapt may show their trauma in more obvious ways.
Here are some of the ways that relational trauma can manifest in teenagers.
We learn boundaries from our caregivers. The combination of vulnerability and protection allows for connection, which is vital for humans. The protection allows for us to keep out thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that don’t belong to us or we don’t agree with, and to give that same freedom and respect to others. On either extreme of that dimension is dysfunction, which comes from not being properly protected as a child.
- When teens’ boundaries are wide open, they are vulnerable to all threats. Others’ thoughts, emotions, and behaviors can impact them in difficult ways.
- When teens are shut off or walled off, it stops them from fully experiencing life. Thus, they experience a severe lack of connection. They also experience great difficulty in letting in others’ thoughts, ideas, and emotions.
Feeling abandoned can make a child feel they are unlovable, and this continues as they age. Enmeshment leads to feelings of being better than others due to being put in the position of parent as a child. Underneath this façade is a deep sense of unworthiness to be taken care of and loved appropriately.
Difficulty maintaining relationships
This includes relationships that are romantic, platonic, or within the family. Moreover, teens may have an inability to trust others, leading to social isolation.
Substance use disorder and self-harming
To relieve the pain of relational trauma, teens might self-medicate with alcohol and drugs. They may also use self-harming behaviors, such as cutting or eating disorders, as coping mechanisms.
Learning and cognitive difficulties
The stress of chronic childhood trauma releases hormones that can physically damage a child’s developing brain.
Mental health issues
Relational trauma is a risk factor for depression, anxiety, or personality disorders.
Physical health problems
Relational trauma can catalyze physical problems, much like the physical issues that impact those with PTSD. These symptoms can include the following:
- Digestive issues
- Chronic pain.
“Research has shown that traumatic childhood experiences are not only extremely common; they also have a profound impact on many different areas of functioning.”
—Bessel van der Kolk, MD
How Relational Trauma Affects Connection
One area that is typically affected by relational trauma is the way teens and adults act and react in various types of relationships. Here are some of the ways that people can respond to relationships later in life when they have experienced relational trauma in childhood.
Relational trauma in childhood can lead to what’s known as “avoidant attachment” in relationships. This is particularly true in romantic relationships. Consequently, people with avoidant attachment style see intimacy as a loss of independence. They tend to keep people at arm’s length. One the other hand, they might value intimacy but have difficulty with it because they find it hard to trust others.
Children who don’t feel safe will often cling tightly to their parent/caregiver. This may be out of fear of being abandoned—even if that person is the one who creates the feelings of fear and anxiety. Therefore, the same behavior can play out in adult relationships. An individual might hold on to a relationship even though it consistently makes them feel frightened or unloved. Moreover, relational trauma can also lead people to feel and act clingy even when they’re in a loving, stable relationship. This may occur with no obvious reasons for being insecure.
Thinking they are better than or worse than others.
Self-esteem is one of the areas most severely impacted 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 parent’s emotional well-being (as in cases of emotional enmeshment) may tend to have feelings of false superiority or power. Both of these mindsets can create turmoil in relationships.
Feeling empty and alone, even 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.
Healing from Relational Trauma
The most effective approach to repairing relational trauma is therapy that focuses on forging authentic connection and creating new, healthier coping mechanisms. 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 impacting their life.
Treatment for attachment disorder can include:
- Clinical therapy
- Yoga and meditation
- Adventure therapy
- Creative arts therapy
- Music therapy
- Mixed martial arts
- Equine-assisted therapy
Building caring, supportive relationships is an important part of healing from relational trauma. Essentially, those in recovery need to become their own loving “parent” in order to heal the attachment bond.
Heather Senior Monroe, MSW, LCSW, is a psychotherapist and licensed clinical social worker. She specializes in treating trauma and its destructive effects on individuals and families. Heather specializes in teenage depression, anxiety, and trauma. She has worked in the fields of teen treatment and prevention for more than 10 years. Additionally, she has implemented solution-focused techniques with teenagers in a wide range of settings.
Read more about Heather’s experience and achievements.