Relational trauma, such as that which occurs as a result of abuse and neglect, impacts three key areas of relational connection:
- The relational connection a child has with others, including those who care for them;
- The relational connection the child has with their own self; and
- The relational connection the child has with their community.
Where relational trauma has occurred, relational connection with others tend to be weak or superficial, easily replaced, and characterised by mistrust and/or uncertainty about safety and dependability. Similarly, relational connection with self tends to be weak, unstable, and characterised by mistrust and/or uncertainty about worthiness and competency. Further, relational connection with community tends to be characterised by an absence of identification and sense of belongingness with.
These impacts have a range of lasting, further impacts for the development and wellbeing of the child, and their approach to life and relationships. Among these, it leaves them vulnerable to poorly regulated behaviour, wherein such behaviour reflects a lack of concern for the impact of their behaviour on themselves, others, and their community. In time, such behaviours extend to antisocial, self-sabotaging, and self-destructive behaviours.
When we sanction children and young people who are recovering from relational trauma for their behaviour and do little to address the reason for it, we compound their feelings of unworthiness and isolation. We leave them vulnerable to orienting to similar others for relational connection, whereupon their antisocial, self-sabotaging, and self-destructive behaviours become normalised and justified.
Therapeutic work with children and young people who have experienced relational trauma necessarily involves the promotion of strong, functional relational connections with those who care for them, with their own self, and with their community. This is best achieved by approaching their care, management, and psychotherapeutic endeavours in such a way:
- that they experience others as sensitive and interested in what is happening for them and why they approach life and relationships in the way that they do;
- that they experience themselves as worthy and competent; and
- that they experience their community as welcoming and accepting.
Put another way, all therapeutic endeavour with children and young people recovering from relational trauma must facilitate experiences of the following:
- My experience is real!
- You get it!
- I am a person of worth!
- I can trust and depend on you!
- What a relief!
- The world just became a little less overwhelming!
In the passage of time, these experiences support regulating relational connections, where one of the primary drivers for their behaviour is their concern for their own self, their relationship with the important people in their life, and their relationship with the community from whom they experience belongingness.
Relationships regulate! They also support a functional approach to life and relationships. In this sense, regulating relational connections, as described herein, are also reparative relationships.
In order for these relationships to occur, children and young people recovering from relational trauma need opportunity to develop regulating relational connections. This means that they need stability of care in arrangements and communities that support experiences of their worth, competency, and belongingness. Their carers and communities need support to better understand these young people and provide care that strengthens regulating relational connection. This is the primary consideration for those involved in the care and management of children and young people who are recovering from relational trauma, and the primary area of endeavour upon which the success of all other endeavours rest.
For an extended commentary about the use of behaviour management among children and young people recovering from relational trauma, written by international consultant in therapeutic residential childcare and therapeutic services for traumatized children, Patrick Tomlinson, click here.