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What is Relational Trauma Anyway?

I know, I know, another new term. Relational trauma. What exactly is that? Relational trauma is what happens when some of the key people in your life harm you. There are many ways that someone who is in a close, personal relationship can harm you, and this blog post it to start you thinking about your relationship history. Perhaps there was a relationship or two that wan’t nurturing for you. Perhaps there is a relationship that taught you how the world works, or how people are supposed to relate. Perhaps that relationship taught you something that wasn’t right, or functional or healthy.

No, it’s not about pointing fingers, nor about assigning blame, it’s about getting the story right, or understanding truth. Is truth important to you? Then you need to look at your world and see the truth that affects your very core. Trauma is not about the hammer, it’s about the dent it leaves behind. If we only judge the world by the hammers in it, we miss the people who walk wounded in it. Yes, some people are more sensitive than others, but that’s a God given asset that we need to appreciate and not depreciate.

Relational trauma is when the most important people in your life taught you something that wasn’t true. They might believe it to be right, but they might not know what’s best. Working through this trauma offers you something that can help you navigate the world with health, love, truth and forgiveness. Usually relational trauma begins with your parents, but it can include other important people in your life when you were growing up. Understanding what your parents taught you takes work, and courage to look carefully at them and yourself, but it can help your life improve dramatically. Who knows, you might even teach them something they need too.

So let’s start with types of abuse. I’ll begin with the ones people can see a mile away. Physical abuse includes physically striking or harming someone. It can also be when a parent expects a child to physically nurture a parent. This might be feeding, cleaning, or caring for them. Sexual abuse is when people invade a child’s boundaries and interact with them in a sexual way. All sexual interactions between adults and children are inappropriate and abusive. These two are easily seen because our legal system monitors and confronts them.

Girl Painter

Intellectual abuse is when a person shames, over-controls or attacks a child with words or actions. This affects a child’s expression of thought about, things, people, or themselves. Emotional abuse is shaming a child for their emotions, refusing to let a child express their own feelings, or when parents improperly express their own feelings to a child. Spiritual abuse is when a parent manipulates religious beliefs for their own gain. They may act as judge, or religious authority to a child in a way that harms them. It elevates the parent in an unhealthy way. These abuses are not confronted by the legal system. Many people don’t realize that they exist and fail to see how it affects how they learned to behave around others.

Abandonment and neglect is abuse. It might be a failure to provide food, clothing or shelter. Or it could be a failure to provide physical, emotional, intellectual nurturing. It might be a lack of medical care or education. Or it can be dismissing of a child’s needs or wants. The legal system monitors neglect in a physical way, but not in emotional, intellectual or spiritual ways. Most people don’t see these as abuse. They believe that emotional and intellectual intimacy is optional and not required of parents. However, to be a fully functioning, connected adult, kids need help with developing good emotional and intellectual skills and habits. Failure to see a child as an emotional and intellectual being is a form of abuse.

Finally, falsely empowering children and elevating them to a similar status as an adult is abuse. Most people need to spend some time with this to really understand it. Falsely empowering a child is expecting them to be an adult when they are still a child. They aren’t developmentally equipped to be a peer to the parent. It sets children up to misunderstand the role of parents and children. Parents are supposed to take care of children and children are supposed to be dependent on their parents. Kids have a chance to make mistakes, grow and learn before the accountability of adulthood. When a child is falsely empowered, they don’t have that chance. They aren’t allowed to play but are expected to be “mini adults.” I’ll write more about this one another day, but this really is abuse. Think of it as taking away someone’s childhood.

So relational abuse is when a kid isn’t allowed to be a kid and isn’t given support and acceptance to grow. Most of us are big kids in adult bodies trying to figure out the world. You don’t have to do it alone. You can learn how to be a “functional adult.” This work is from Pia Mellody and her work in her books, Facing Codependency, and The Intimacy Factor. It’s a lot to take in, so if you’d rather walk along the path with me, we’ll take it step by step. Welcome. You are welcome here if you want to figure it out.

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