Two weeks ago, I wrote an article about child abuse, specifically dispelling the notion that child abuse is “just” physical in nature.
I wrote about how child abuse can also look emotional, psychological, verbal and/or neglectful in nature and provided examples of what this can look like.
In today’s post, I want to introduce an idea of what can result from the complexity of this child abuse, particularly if the abuse takes place over a period of time and in the context of a relationship with a parent or guardian.
This idea is called complex relational trauma and it can be deeply impactful to children and the adults that they become.
In today’s post, I want to provide a brief overview of what complex relational trauma is, how it happens, what the symptoms and impacts of this may be, and share a curated list of resources that you may want to explore further if you identify with complex relational trauma.
What is complex relational trauma?
“Unlike other forms of psychological disorders, the core issue in trauma is reality.” ― Bessel A. van der Kolk
First, let me be clear that complex relational trauma is not an official diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM, the clinical guidebook of the mental health community).
Complex relational trauma and its attendant symptoms do, however, most closely resemble PTSD which is in the DSM.
(However, complex relational trauma could and sometimes is also interchanged with terms and descriptions such as complex PTSD, developmental trauma, and interpersonal trauma.)
Why is complex relational trauma not in the DSM?
There are likely many explanations but one I personally and professionally believe is that the DSM – while valuable – sometimes fails to take into account our full spectrum of humanity and complicated relational experiences and, thus, lacks in some ways.
So, for the sake of this article, I’ll use the term complex relational trauma, explain it anecdotally (since an official diagnosis is lacking) and provide symptomatology that most closely resembles that of PTSD as well as what I’ve seen and understood clinically.
So again, what is complex relational trauma?
Complex relational trauma is interpersonal in nature and it happens in the context of close attachment relationships, usually when there is an imbalance of power.
In other words, it is likely to happen in our primary relationships with either parents, caregivers, guardians, or those with authority and great control over us (for example, the head of a boarding school or director of an orphanage) where there is accessibility to the child or teen, and a level of dependency from the victim to the abuser.
Complex relational trauma is protracted not isolated, meaning it happens more than once and usually over a period of time, making it also, usually, cumulative.
For example, complex relational trauma doesn’t have to end in childhood; there can be the same or different perpetrators such as going from having your father be the abuser to having a string of abusive relationships with men. (If you need help healing from relational trauma, please consider seeking additional support and exploring my signature online course, Hard Families, Good Boundaries.)
Complex relational trauma is, effectively, anything that undermines, demeans, or erodes the dignity, safety, and well-being of the individual who goes through it.
Examples of events that can lead to complex relational trauma can include the scenarios from my prior article and it can also include experiences with caregivers or guardians that are fundamentally chaotic, unstable, unsafe, inconsistent, unpredictable, and overwhelming.
Exposure to domestic violence, having neglectful, apathetic, or emotionally unavailable caretakers, parents who betray you or fail to advocate for you and your needs, parents with mental illness (like being parented by a narcissist) or addictions, etc..
All of these are examples of who and what can contribute to the development of complex relational trauma in a child and adult.
But what makes these relational experiences traumatic?
The bottom line is this: when children experience traumas and stress, it is not necessarily the trauma itself that becomes the problem.
If a child has securely attached, attuned, loving, consistent caregivers who can support them in metabolizing the stress, organizing and making sense of it, the child can more or less move through a trauma or stressor functionally.
However, if the trauma or stressor is happening within the attachment relationship with the parent or guardian, the child, therefore, cannot usually rely on the adult to help them integrate and process the stress.
Or if the trauma or stress happens outside of the attachment relationship but the caregiving adult still fails to support the child in managing, healing, or recovering from it, a child will likely develop maladaptive and compensatory responses to organize their experience simply because, as children, they do not have the resources and coping skills to do much else.
Maladaptive responses are numerous and varied but essentially, if left unaddressed and untreated, they can lead the child to become an adult who has ineffective beliefs and behaviors about themselves, about others, and about the world.
So what, specifically can these maladaptive beliefs and behaviors look like?
Impacts on the individual who goes through complex relational trauma.
“As the ACE study has shown, child abuse and neglect is the single most preventable cause of mental illness, the single most common cause of drug and alcohol abuse, and a significant contributor to leading causes of death such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, stroke, and suicide.” ― Bessel A. van der Kolk
The impacts of complex relational trauma will be wide, varied, and unique to the individual who experiences it.
There is no one-size-fits-all description.
It’s absolutely possible that two children, growing up in the same household where the relational trauma took place, will have wildly different responses due to many factors including but not limited to the child’s temperament and resources, length and intensity of exposure to the trauma, the type of trauma, and any if at all support in managing it, etc..
So, all of this to say that while there is no one recipe for what the impacts of complex relational trauma may be on an individual, there is, according to the symptomology of the DSM diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and what I have experienced and understood clinically, a list of possible and probable outcomes:
- Attachment wounds and development of an attachment style that is other than secure (see my forthcoming blog post in two weeks for more on this);
- Cognitive distortions (erroneous or unconstructive beliefs about self, others, and the world) and/or intrusive thoughts;
- Avoidance behaviors to minimize contact or recreation of the events or scenarios that caused the distress;
- Dissociation, an inability to recall the traumas or to stay mentally present when reflecting on and discussing them;
- Somatic impacts such a hyper-aroused nervous system, muscle tightness, trouble sleeping, or other uncomfortable body sensations;
- Interpersonal difficulties in romantic relationships, at work, with friends, with neighbors, with the family of origin, feeling detached and separate from others;
- Comorbid (meaning co-occurring) disorders such as eating disorders, substance disorders, compulsive behavioral patterns, self-harming behaviors such as cutting or promiscuity, possible development of a personality disorder or mood disorder;
- Emotional distress and dysregulation challenges (either too much access or too little access to emotion and difficulties appropriately expressing this emotion);
- Life task impairments such as holding down a job, creating stable housing, managing money well, achieving relational, academic, and professional developmental milestones, etc..
And while this list is not exhaustive, you can see that the impacts of complex relational trauma effectively can impair nearly every major life area.
Hence this blog post title, “all the little fragments”, because often this is how life for a complex relational trauma survivor feels: fragmented, broken, splintered, unwhole across so many different life areas…
Now, as challenging as it can be to begin recovering from a childhood of complex relational trauma, I do personally and professionally think that it is possible and that it is one of the most worthwhile journeys anyone could ever make.
In essence, it’s a journey to reclaim your life, to take the little fragments and make something beautiful and more whole from them.
Healing from complex relational trauma
“As long as you keep secrets and suppress information, you are fundamentally at war with yourself…The critical issue is allowing yourself to know what you know. That takes an enormous amount of courage.” ― Bessel A. van der Kolk
For individuals dealing with complex relational trauma and the clinicians who work with them, it can be, quite frankly, sometimes hard to identify and understand that what you are dealing with is a trauma history.
So many of the clustered symptoms of complex relational trauma overlap with mood and personality disorders and may even be missed if a comorbid disorder (like bulimia or panic disorder) exists, or if a trauma background is not identified by either party.
It’s important if you think that you see yourself in this article or in this concept of complex relational trauma, to talk to your therapist about it.
When we shine a light on things as they really are, it gives us a better chance to work with them.
Because, in recovering from complex relational trauma, there is plenty of work to be done.
Recovery is and will be, for many, multi-dimensional work as the wounding itself is multi-dimensional.
There’s the relational wounding component and the need for relational healing which, I believe, can happen in the context of a safe, supportive, attuned and reparative experience with a trained professional (like a therapist) or with a dear friend or securely attached romantic partner.
There is the somatic level of the work, the need to regulate and retrain the nervous system and body that the world is safe and to help it calm down and respond appropriately versus in default.
There is the cognitive level of the work which includes recalling, narrating, and making meaning and sense of memories and history as well as forming and internalizing newer, more constructive beliefs about oneself, others, and the world.
There is the emotional level of the work, learning or relearning emotional regulation, emotional expression, even being able to identify emotions in the body.
And there is, I believe, life skills work that may have been missed or impeded by the complexity of the relational trauma. Work like managing money wisely, seeking out and nurturing a career, practicing self-supporting hygiene and personal care habits, learning the myriad complex logistical skills that can lead to a whole and fulfilled life.
The best way, I truly believe, to begin recovering from complex relational trauma is to seek out professional support, ideally with a clinician who is well-versed in trauma.
I also believe that psychoeducation can be a wonderful and helpful tool in the recovery process and so, to that end, I have included some curated resources for you below.
“First, the physiological symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder have been brought within manageable limits. Second, the person is able to bear the feelings associated with traumatic memories. Third, the person has authority over her memories; she can elect both to remember the trauma and to put memory aside. Fourth, the memory of the traumatic event is a coherent narrative, linked with feeling. Fifth, the person’s damaged self-esteem has been restored. Sixth, the person’s important relationships have been reestablished. Seventh and finally, the person has reconstructed a coherent system of meaning and belief that encompasses the story of trauma.” ― Judith Lewis Herman
I want to thank my friend, Carol Anna McBride, creator of The Trauma Project for her recommendations of resources to further explore the topic of complex relational trauma. I will add, too, that The Trauma Project itself is an excellent resource for anyone who has undergone complex relational trauma and is seeking education, support, and community around it.
- Treatment of Complex Trauma: A Sequenced, Relationship-Based Approach by Christine Courtois and Julian Ford*
- Journey Through Trauma: A Trail Guide to the 5-Phase Cycle of Healing Repeated Trauma by Gretchen Schmelzer, PhD*
- The Complex PTSD Workbook: A Mind-Body Approach to Regaining Emotional Control and Becoming Whole by Arielle Schwartz, PhD*
- The Body Keeps Score: Brain, Mind, And Body In The Healing Of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk*
Other articles of mine that may complement this one in your recovery from complex relational trauma:
- Dispelling myth of child abuse.
- How to recover from growing up with a narcissistic parent.
- The playing field wasn’t level to begin with: on childhood trauma and the fruitless comparison game.
- The power of being the black sheep in your family.
- What does it mean to remother yourself and why is it so critical for our growth as women?
- The five healing tasks of the un- and under-parented.
- Yes, sweetheart. You do actually get to grieve this.
“She could never go back and make some of the details pretty. All she could do was move forward and make the whole beautiful.”― Terri St. Cloud
I include the above quote often in my writing often because, fundamentally, this describes my orientation and belief about therapy and therapeutic work.
Our past is not something we “just get over” nor is it something we can ignore.
Our past is something which, when ready and with support, we turn towards and face, and only then can we do the grieving and healing work we need to do in order to move forward and make the whole of our lives more beautiful than our pasts have been.
Confronting our personal history takes tremendous courage. But it is so, so worth it.
Now I would love to hear from you in the comments below: Have you heard of the term complex relational trauma before? Do you see yourself in this? What or who has been a support to you in your healing journey in recovering from complex relational trauma? Leave a message in the comments below so our community of readers can benefit from your wisdom.
If you would like additional support with this and you live in California or Florida, please feel free to reach out to me directly to explore therapy together. You can also book a complimentary consult call to explore therapy with one of my fantastic clinicians at my trauma-informed therapy center, Evergreen Counseling.
Or if you live outside of these states, please consider enrolling in the waitlist for the Relational Trauma Recovery School – or my signature online course, Hard Families, Good Boundaries, designed to support you in healing your adverse early beginnings and create a beautiful adulthood for yourself, no matter where you started out in life.
And until next time, please take very good care of yourself. You’re so worth it.
*This is an affiliate link and any purchases made through this link will result in a small commission for me (at no extra cost for you).
If you are curious about online counseling or in person counseling, connect with us here.
Katherine Sadler on
I’ve been given a diagnosis of Complex Trauma/PTSD and advised to do Attachment-based EMDR to bring in some resources and do re-parenting etc. Dissociation is a major component of my childhood trauma…I dissociated literally for years. I’ve had to move states to finally stop dissociating. In regards to the dissociating, do you know of anything particular helpful to reduce the dissociating? I’ve heard of grounding and mindfulness, but sometimes they don’t seem to be enough. Can I never go back to the town I grew up in? Thanks
While I’m not trained in EMDR, I have many close colleagues and friends who are and, from what I gather from them, EMDR can be a terrific tool in helping to manage dissociation. I would definitely explore this as an option if you have been advised to explore it. If you don’t know where to begin to find an EMDR therapist, I would start by looking through this directory to find one near you: http://www.emdr.com/SEARCH/index.php
This post is addresses something I feel is very much what impacts me every day, in every relationship. Thank you for writing this as well as the related one on child abuse. I have been dx’d wirh C-PTSD. My childhood included a large amount of emotional abuse from a parent (which continues today when I allow it), and one single incident of childhood molestation by an extended family member who is now deceased. I don’t feel strong negative emotions when I talk/think about the sexual abuse but the complex relational abuse continues to haunt me and I dissociate often when thinking/talking about it and interacting with that parent. My current therapist wants me to go into treatment for sexual abuse; but I feel what you have shared in this post is what I need to address. Could you comment on what might be the differences in treatment to aid in healing of complex relational trauma vs childhood sexual abuse? Would one be better to address before the other? Or concurrently?
What I’m hearing in your message is that there’s some part of you that trusts you need and want to work with someone who can more comprehensively work with the relational trauma you experienced versus just someone who might work with more “isolated” sexual trauma. I would encourage you to trust this part in you and bring this concern and longing up with your current therapist.
As I always tell my clients: I’m not the expert of you, you’re the expert of you. I’m only the expert in helping you *access* you and learning what feels best and right and true for you. So, because of this, I would encourage you to feel empowered to bring your intuition up with your therapist and see if you can find some support that meets the needs you’re experiencing.
I hope this feels helpful, Jen. Warmly, Annie
I was once told by a (non therapist) practitioner that we can simply let all of these things go and be who we want to be, and that “family is challenging and hard”. It’s a nice idea, and one that I bought into for a while, but dangerous because it does not allow one to integrate what happened early in one’s life and become empowered by it through this integration. In other words: while following this statement (to let things go and simply live from right now), I was still feeling the same emotional/psychological charge as before and trying to squeeze into a new way of being without discharging all of the old “stuff” first. It was not productive for me, and I spent years trying to live from this model. That’s enough of the ill-conceived model…
Growing up I was often told that I was too sensitive, or being difficult, or needed “to stop”, to be quiet (not speak up for myself), amongst other more serious things, all of which have carried into my adult life. I’m so tired of living these same scripts/behaviors. Being the proverbial black sheep in the family had its challenges as a child/teenager, but now that I am an adult nearing 40 – it’s time to integrate and learn from what I can, grieve, let go, and be the person that I want to be. It’s time to hold my own space, and not take in or be as affected by others – especially family members.
I have recently started working with my “little t” familial/relational complex trauma. It’s been really validating, and beneficial to me. I’ve previously addressed “big T” sexual trauma, and it freed up so much for me that when the call came for me to seek therapy (with the same therapist as before), I knew I could do it and benefit from it again.
This is powerful work, one that a great therapist is central to, which is compounded by a willingness to be open, creative and vulnerable. For me, I feel that if I’m going to do this work with a therapist then I might as well be as open as I can be (to the therapist, and for myself) to facilitate my healing. It has been nothing but the most positive of experiences for me thus far. I feel very lucky to be working with who I am. I’m working in a somatic/talk combination environment with EMDR processing and other modalities.
I hope this all makes sense – I am in the midst of therapy now for working through my childhood/teenage years. I can say, even partially through the therapeutic process, that I feel calmer, less anxious, I sleep better, and I’m able to speak from MY HEART more than I could imagine.
Pam, my goodness. I loved your message so much! There is so much I want to respond to.
First, I think that the message that some practitioners/churches/families pass on “Families are hard. Just forgive them and move on.” (and all the hundreds of iterations of this message) can be so dismissive if not damaging to the individual who has experienced relational trauma. Relational trauma is not a thing we “get over”. It’s experience that we have to emotionally process, make sense of, metabolize, and integrate into our lives. We will never be “fully over” trauma. It’s part of the weave and weft of the tapestry of our story.
I’m so glad you are doing the work to confront your own Big and Little T’s and that you found someone you trust to work through this with.
The feeling of being the Black Sheep and being “too much” is so common for those of us who have experienced complex relational trauma. I wonder if you’ve been able to read my other posts – https://www.anniewright.com/the-power-of-being-the-black-sheep-in-your-family/ AND https://www.anniewright.com/too-much/ ? I wonder if these might feel valuable and helpful to you, too.
Again, Pam, thank you for taking the time to leave a message. I really value hearing your experience and am wishing you the best on your continued healing journey.
I was familiar with the term “trauma” but, your definition is wider, and even more precise.
Yes, it is complex, and yes, the “core” lies within the relational aspect.
I’m glad therapy is taking more importance day by day.
If I knew – If I could have understood that I needed to heal – that I needed to undergo my individual self-acknowledgement process, I would have started 20 years ago – before starting any Life project.
This could have saved me a lot – in every aspect. Sentimental, Economic…
Thank you for this great article.
Wish you the best – be a great example of conscious parenting!
You are so, so welcome, V. It makes me glad to know you may have felt a little more seen by my words, and remember, transformation is still possible at any point along our healing journeys.
Carol Masson on
Omg this is all so painfully relatable, i am 65 years old and must coming to terms with all this. I feel that i have a long way into my journey of any sense if healing after losing my 2 daughter’s to my narcissistic mother.
I just feel permanently traumatised , but having the knowledge that all that has happened to me was abuse and not all my fault is the beginning to finding my true self……
Hi Carol, thank you for your vulnerability, I appreciate you sharing your story with all of us! I’m so proud of you for healing, acknowledging your feelings, and processing the abuse. You are so strong! Take such good care of yourself. Warmly, Annie.
In my experience, and my journey, your article is spot on. My therapist puts my relational trauma at the forefront of the work we do. It is not possible for me to do any other healing work without firstly addressing the relational issues. It has been a long journey of almost 30 years of therapy before I could begin to face the abuse
Hi Carrie, thank you for sharing your thoughts, I’m happy this post resonated with you! I’m so proud of you for all of your hard work and am so glad you’re working with a therapist that knows of and puts the relational trauma work at the forefront of your clinical work. That makes me so happy to hear. I’m so happy my articles can be even a small part of your healing journey, too. Warmly, Annie.
Thank you for this, really appreciate this piece and these resources. My spouse is being treated for c-PTSD (just with intensive talk therapy) and it is so hard to stand by and just “wait” for them to start to be better- and in the meantime give up all my hopes of a relationship that is more equitable. It’s a deep dive for sure, not a lot of brain space for connecting with anyone else.
I’m really frustrated with our couples therapist who has not been direct with me/us about what c-PTSD really entails – my partner is currently not capable of fully participating in our life, and now that I know that I will stop expecting it, I am only hurting them by asking for more.
Hi Liz, thank you so much for taking the time to comment and for your kind words about what I shared. I’m sorry and yet unsurprised to hear that your couples therapist doesn’t seem to be trauma-informed enough to see your partner’s C-PTSD and the impact it has on your relationship. That’s likely a lonely experience in those sessions for you. I want to encourage you to check out my colleague Heather Tuba’s work since she specifically serves partners of those with C-PTSD. I truly hope that all of what she shares can be a support to you as you navigate your relationship. Warmly, Annie